In progress manuscript for evaluation only.
Please do not distribute without the author's permission.
Not By Death Alone
A novel of suspense.
By D. H. Cope
Length @80,000 words
Not by death alone
Should life unmeaningful be.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental
and not intended by the author.
My sincere thanks go to my wife Mary Jane, without whose encouragement and patience this
book could never have been completed, to my dear friend Keith Muscutt, whose expertise in
writing has helped me immensely, and to many others whose advice on the manuscript was
extraordinarily helpful. I’d also like to thank all of the authors whose books helped me find
my way in unknown territory, especially Lee Child. Any mistakes of omission or commission
in this book are entirely mine.
I woke up suddenly. The wash of sunlight from the window across from my bed nearly
blinded me. Something was wrong. I tried to remember if I’d forgotten anything. Nothing
registered. The room looked like I’d left it. The clock next to the bed read almost exactly ten.
That wasn’t it. I’d planned on getting up around ten. Except something was still wrong. I
didn’t move. Except for my eyes, which played left and right looking for motion. None. The
window was still locked. No unusual odors. The clock ticked softly. Maybe a few distant
sounds coming from outside. That wasn’t it. But something was definitely wrong.
I felt okay. No hangover. Did I drink last night? No. What had I done before I’d gone
to bed? Watched television. An old black and white movie from the fifties. The Big Knife with
Jack Palance. About an actor forced to play a part he didn’t want to play. Melodramatic.
Nothing in that. Was I expecting someone? No. Just another day. Breakfast, shower, dressed,
and off to teach. Like always. What day was this? Tuesday. Was I sure? Yes. Something was still
I risked sitting up in bed and looking at things from that angle. While I couldn’t
remember where everything had been, nothing struck me as strange. Had I dreamed? A
nightmare? Nothing I could remember. And I usually did. But the feeling of strangeness
persisted. As if something was terribly wrong. Maybe it was me. I was wrong. How? I felt the
same as I remembered. Except for that wrongness. Not so much of imminent danger, though
somehow dangerous nonetheless. A threat. Surrounding me completely.
I stood up and looked at my face in the mirror next to the bed. Same old face. Lots of
things wrong there. Though nothing unexpected. Hair unkempt. Beard stubble. Eyes slightly
bloodshot. Like every morning. Same old me. But the feeling wouldn’t go away. Something
I looked down at my pajamas. Same color. Looked slept in. Bare feet. Like always.
Maybe that was it. Like always. Could I have had an epiphany? Had I finally had it with
nothing being wrong in my life? Jesus, I thought, just the kind of thing an academic would
think. Something wrong because things were right. Too right.
That’s when it hit me. Eleven. Comes right after ten. One before twelve. Why that?
Why eleven? Eleven what? I had no idea. The word hung in my mind like a mantra. It didn’t
repeat over and over. Simply there. Eleven. Like a beacon. Like some kind of ominous
prediction of the future. I must have dreamt it. But who dreams a number?
I looked into the living room. A mess. The same mess that had been there the night
before. The front door was still locked. I glanced toward the kitchen. Brightly lit from the
sun. Otherwise normal. Maybe I’d forgotten to wash eleven dishes. But why would I
remember that of all things?
As I fixed a light breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, I considered the number. Eleven.
What kinds of things come in elevens? Apollo 11 was first on the moon. Eleven players on a
football team. Eleven pipers piping. Bill Gates’ Eleven Rules of Life. Things like ‘life’s unfair’
and ‘if you think your teacher is tough, wait ‘til you meet your boss.’ Good for undergrads at
the U. Nothing in it for me. Eleven what, then?
I shaved, took a shower, and dressed. Two shoes, two socks, underwear, pants,
undershirt, dress shirt, coat, and two gloves. Eleven. My hat. Twelve. Not eleven. What the
hell was going on? A simple number I just couldn’t shake.
I peaked out my front door before leaving the apartment. No one waiting to shoot
me. Nothing out of the ordinary. I tried to think of my first class of the day. At eleven.
Maybe that was it. Intro to Artificial Intelligence. Two hundred blank stares from freshmen
students having to take a course they had no interest in. At eleven in the morning. So what?
Last class of the semester and I’d already met them at eleven in the morning twenty-nine
times. No problems then.
Once outside, the winter wind nearly blew me back indoors. Two feet of old snow on
the ground. Brilliant blue sky. Cold as hell. The date, however, was not November the
eleventh, two thousand eleven. It was December the third, two thousand ten. Nothing eleven
in that. My address was apartment three thirty four in the fifteen hundred block of Main
Street. Nothing eleven there. And yet the strange feeling persisted. Something was
dreadfully wrong, and I had no idea what. Except, of course, that it might be related in some
way to the number eleven.
I trudged through a snow bank next to the sidewalk to avoid slipping on the ice there.
Snowmelt frozen over night. Slow going in the deep snow, but safer. Fifty feet or so from the
steps to the computer science building I heard her voice. Screaming. Not loud, due to the
dead air. I followed the sound and saw a young woman, probably a student, running directly
toward me, kicking snow as she went, and staggering from the exertion. I also saw someone
far behind her, turning away and running in the opposite direction.
“Help,” came the voice. “Help me!”
What a way to begin the day, I thought, and turned and ran toward her.
“For God’s sake help me!” she yelled.
I reached her just as she collapsed, falling against me in a kind of hug as we met.
“Help me . . .” and her voice trailed off.
I lifted her and looked into her face. A nice face. Maybe early twenties. At the same
time I noticed my hands behind her had become sticky. And her eyes started to fold up into
her head like someone ready to pass out.
“What’s going on,” I yelled at her. More to keep her conscious than anything else.
She didn’t answer.
I could feel her heart pumping wildly through her sticky coat. Something was wrong.
I grabbed her under her knees and behind the head, picked her up, and walked as
quickly as I could back toward the building. She needed warmth. To get out of this cold dry
As I held her, I looked at one of my exposed gloved hands. Dark red. Blood.
“Jesus,” I said. “Stay with it. Keep breathing. I’ll get help.” And I pumped my legs
harder through the snow.
Her head lolled back as if she’d lost consciousness. Not a good sign. I looked around
for someone. The man I’d seen was now gone, his footprints visible in the snow. A couple of
students were now walking toward the building where I’d been moments before.
“Here,” I yelled. “Help!”
They heard me, stood still for a moment, and both ran toward me and the girl.
“Call 911,” I yelled at one of them. The other I told to help me carry the girl. They both
obeyed. After all, I was faculty and they students. Pecking order.
We got her up the steps, through the double doors, and into the warm marble foyer.
As the door closed behind us, I could hear our footsteps resonate in the mausoleum-like
We laid her down carefully in a pool of blood that had already begun puddling
“Shit,” the student who’d helped me carry her in said. “She’s hurt. What happened?”
“No idea,” I said. “She called for help.”
By then a couple of secretaries had come over to see what the commotion was all
I reached out and took the young girl’s hand and felt for a pulse. Faint. Disappearing
“Tell them we need an ambulance right now,” I yelled to no one in particular. Hoping
that the other student had already reached 911.
For some reason, probably due to my heightened awareness from the experience, my
mind said clearly, ‘That’s one.’ I wasn’t sure I’d actually thought it. So real. As if someone
invisible next to me had said it aloud. But no one had.
“What happened?” one of the secretaries asked.
“No idea. She called for help and that’s it.
“What’s wrong with her? To make that much blood?”
Didn’t know the answer to that. Shot? Knifed? I sat down next to the girl and tried to
rub life back into her arm. Then I put my hand in front of her mouth. No breath. She was
dead. Or at least close to it.
Grabbing her cheeks, I began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Breathe in, out, in, out.
I put my hands on her chest and pushed up and down as paramedics do so many times
in movies. Then I thought this might make her heart pump more blood out of her, so I
In the distance, sirens were coming. Would they arrive in time?
A crowd had gathered, and for whatever reason I told them to back off. She needed
By the time the medics arrived, and with them the cops, I lost touch with the girl.
Herded out of the way as I should be. A bystander. Though certainly more than that. After
all, her blood was all over my coat, my gloves, and my shoes. Everywhere. Except my hat.
My class was scheduled to begin in five minutes. Just down the hall. Two hundred
students waiting for me there. Early. I didn’t suffer tardiness gladly. Could I teach dressed
like this? No. Besides the cops would want to talk to me.
I politely pulled one of the secretaries aside and asked, given the conditions, if she’d
go to my classroom and tell my students the lecture was cancelled today and to keep
studying for the final. She took one look at me, nodded, and walked down the hall.
Eleven. The word wouldn’t go away. The minute that things had begun to settle down,
it’s all I could think of. Eleven what? Dead girls? Shootings? Crises?
They took her away on a stretcher. Covered completely by a white sheet. Nothing to
mistake about that. She was dead. Probably had died in my arms as I carried her to what I
thought was safety.
And, of course, the cops did wish to speak to me. With my bloody clothes on. In a
private office. At length. I told him the story as well as I could remember. Her crying out.
The man behind her, and his footprints in the snow. Of my catching her and getting the two
students to help. I told them everything except ‘eleven.’ They wouldn’t know what to do
about that any more than I did.
The day wore on. Any thoughts I may have had about teaching my other classes
evaporated. I told the story again and again to different cops. They filled out forms from the
academic file the university kept on me. That made things go a bit faster.
The day had turned to night by the time they released me to go home, change my
clothes, and try to get back to an ordinary life. Fat chance. They’d given me several cards
declaring their names, emails, phone numbers, and identification as city policemen. In case I
remembered anything else about the case.
I hadn’t recognized the girl. Had she been in my class? Two hundred students were
too many for me to recognize individually. They hadn’t told me her name or anything about
her. All I knew was that she was dead and that I’d tried unsuccessfully to save her life.
If I woke up tomorrow without a hangover I’d be surprised. For I raided my bottle of
Jim Beam with a vengeance when I returned home. And tried to forget about the girl. And
the number eleven.
My drug-of-choice to forget about the young lady who’d died in my arms didn’t work.
Her face haunted me in my semi-waking moments during the night. At one point, she tried
to tell me something as she died. “Eleven.” She mouthed the word.
When I woke the next morning with my expected hangover, her face had taken on a
bigger than life reality for me. I ate two aspirin and drank a cup of coffee. No go. Whatever
I’d experienced in my brief moment with her was going to remain with me for some time
apparently. A beautiful face, etched with pain and confusion, locked inside me.
I looked out the window at the North Dakota sky. Lonely snowflakes drifted past the
pane as if the weather, like me, couldn’t figure out what to do next. Someone had died in my
arms yesterday. For no good reason I could figure out. And here I was, soaking in my self-
Who was this person whose life I’d so briefly touched? What had she done? And to
whom? Why had they killed her so mercilessly? Why had fate seen to it that she’d died in the
field as I held her? So many questions. None with answers. I didn’t even know her name.
I was obsessing and knew it. Hard not to, though, since I’d watched her die.
After a simple breakfast, I tried to think of other things. My career. Such as it was. A
university professor in the wilds of North Dakota. Teaching artificial intelligence and
modeling life-like behavior on computers for my research. Artificial life. Attempting to play
God by generating simple behavior from simple beginnings, much as physicists and
biologists had imagined it had happened in real life. Years of work with very little to show
for it. Colleagues who thought I was nuts. Me wondering if I’d taken a wrong turn. The A-Life
field was still young and many thought it a fringe science, if a science at all. Had it not been
for von Neumann and a few other computer-science legends having breached the important
questions, it would no doubt have remained the stuff of science fiction rather than of science.
I pondered eleven again. Plugged in my computer and went on a search. It’s a wonder
what the Internet can do. And what it can’t do. Fifteen pop songs with the number eleven in
their titles. Four novels likewise. There were 7-Eleven convenience stores, the Oceans Eleven
film, the BC and AD years 11, and several clothing stores by that name for reasons that eluded
me. Apparently the number also had horoscopic meanings such as intuition, patience,
sensitivity, and honesty. It was a popular time for television news broadcasts, a signal for
worries as in the ‘eleventh hour,’ and the name of a society magazine in Saint Louis. The
number also appeared in other guises, though these were the highlights.
None of this helped much. I’d wasted an hour or two of my morning with nothing to
show for it. Not ridding myself of the image of a woman murdered, breathing her last
breaths as I watched. Helpless. I felt like crying. But couldn’t find the tears. Too anonymous.
Besides, the tears would most likely have been for me, not her.
As I walked to campus late that morning, in the inches of new snow that had
accumulated over night, I tried to keep my mind off death. North Dakota. What a place. A
town called Rugby in mid-state held the distinction of being the geographical center of
North America. Jamestown had a twenty-six foot tall and forty-six foot long statue of a
Buffalo. World’s largest. A man named Casselton had built a fifty-foot-high pyramid of empty
oilcans, the highest in the world. Maybe the onlyest in the world too? The latest census, I’d
seen, showed North Dakota with a total of six hundred and fifty thousand residents. Less than
twenty American cities. More jobs available here than people willing to fill them. The
summers threatened tornados. The winters could hardly be colder. The jet stream mainlined
through the flat lands, unloading the most violent tastes of its Alaskan brews before they hit
Minneapolis and Chicago. Temperatures often fell well under sixty degree below zero. Poor
cell-phone reception left many residents like me still using ancient plug-in-the-wall
telephones. This also made computer use difficult, for the most part requiring wall
connections to get Internet access and email.
I loved it. We didn’t make many national tourist brochures, but the incredible empty
spaces, the low rolling hills, and the beauty of the sunsets would attract anyone who stopped
long enough to enjoy them. And the state was mostly empty. No fast pace to maintain. No
Joneses with whom to keep up with. Eden.
He held up his hands fisted like a boxer. But he was no boxer. The black kroma he wore
around his waist proved that. As a master, he was a lethal weapon. Able to use any part of his
body to kill using Bokator from Cambodia. One of the deadliest of martial arts. He circled to
his left as his arms faked punches. Every move resembling one by a particular animal. From
ants to elephants. Ready to claw out my throat, break my legs, sever my spinal cord, dig out
my eyeballs, crush my legs, or one of thousands of other moves he could use to disable or kill.
I mirrored his stance and movements to demonstrate my own skills. Muscles relaxed.
Eyeing him with a predatory lack of emotion. Ready to maim without mercy. I also felt like
running. After all, my own kroma, had I worn it, was red not black, making me only a skilled
novice. But I’d accepted his overtures by taking the stance, so I couldn’t run now. And a
crowd had gathered, caging us in. No way to escape. All that remained was for him to attack
me with an unrecognized move. If I could react quickly enough, I’d survive. Otherwise the
little bout would end as fast as it had begun. And I’d be in the hospital. Or the morgue.
Without warning, he dropped to his knees and slammed his elbow upwards towards
my midsection. Luckily, I’d used the same move before and saw it coming. Countered it by
leaning back slightly and dropping to the floor. All the while hooking my legs around the
master’s left arm, and twisting him away onto his side. This may have taken two seconds. Far
too long in Bokator. Though long enough for him to get the idea that he couldn’t fool around
with me. At the same time, I could feel his strength of will. Far superior to my own.
I leapt to my feet to gain more advantage. As I did, he used ‘dragon whips his tail’ by
swinging his left foot upward and grazing my jaw. Just enough power to send me down to
the floor. But not out. Not yet. I crawled away quickly and within seconds we were up again
and taking our boxing stances. Moving around each other as we’d begun. My teeth hurt,
along with muscles I hadn’t used in months. He looked as good as new. No sign that my
maneuvers had done him any harm.
Before I could prepare for his next move, he stepped in close, stuck out a curled finger
as ‘fang,’ and hooked it behind my left clavicle. Then, with his finger digging into my flesh,
he pulled me forward into a head butt. It happened so quickly, all I could do was react to the
sudden near concussion. Then some ancient instinct took over, and I kneed him in the groin.
And watched him double up in pain.
All this was introduction. Warning shots. Both of us knew that within a minute one of
us would be down for the count. Such was the nature of Bokator, a military art that took no
prisoners. Though an art only when practiced in the studio. A fight to the death when
encountered on the streets like now. Abolished by the Pol Pot regime during the Viet Nam
rule of Cambodia for fear, no doubt, that it gave power to the people to fight back against
Why I wasted my time thinking these thoughts was beyond me. For as little time as
they took, my opponent decided his next move and caught me unaware. He feinted his arms
outward, then crossed and scissored them over my throat. Designed to crush my windpipe, I
had precious little time to respond. I protruded my fisted middle finger of my stronger right
hand, and thrust it upward into the flesh under his jawbone. With everything I had. After all,
if that didn’t work, I’d be done for. But it did work. He gagged, and I felt the scissor hold give
slightly. Enough that I could dig the heal of my left shoe into his right shin. Hard enough
that the bone should have broken. It didn’t, though it clearly got his attention.
Once again he fell backward. I grabbed his choking throat hold, pulled it apart, and
stumbled away. To stay alive. Or else I would have fallen with him. Neither of us was going to
have any fun when this was over. No matter who won. Maybe the real winner died. For theirs
was the kingdom of peace, not of pain and disfigurement.
We paused for a second, and then returned to our counterclockwise feints. The
master’s eyes no longer showed lack of emotion. Nor even determination. They drilled
through me as if I was nothing but a momentary target. His teeth clenched. I had no idea
what he’d do next. Any part of his body was a potential weapon. I could only give back what I
received. To cower showed weakness. So I curled my fingers into ‘lion claws’ and scratched
the air. I imagined my entire body as a missile, ready to launch myself at him. All this in a
split second. I barred my teeth in a savage grin and gave him glare for glare.
That’s when he started giggling. Almost uncontrollably. He fell to the ground and
doubled up, his high-pitched voice piercing the previously quiet air around us. Now I could
clinch victory. Break the master’s back with a single kick. But his laughing was so infectious it
caught on. Even with those in the crowd. I fell to my knees. What a scene we must have made.
That is, if anyone had come upon us at that moment. No one did. For this was a Bokator class.
The master’s class.
“Pretty good, Will,” he said, as we calmed from our brief skirmish.
“Thought you had me with the scissors.”
“I did. You’re a dead man.”
That sobered me. He’d pulled his punches.
“Makes me wonder why I pay you for this humiliation.”
“So you won’t die if someone else jumps you.”
“Ah, there’s that,” and helped him to his feet. Twenty years my senior, he was still as
limber and muscular as someone half his age.
The other students gathered around and compared notes. Each readying for their own
competition with one of the best known Bokator experts in America. Each knowing they had
little chance, even those with black kromas. For the master had the highest ranking in that
color, something attained after a lifetime of training several hours a day. I was learning,
though after two years had only begun.
It took ten minutes for one of my classmates to drive me back to my apartment.
Didn’t own a car myself. The building in which I worked was almost directly across the street,
though situated back in a meadow. Downtown was only a few blocks away. Eateries and
groceries within easy walking distance. A slight inconvenience against monthly payments
for years, insurance, gas, checkups, and repairs. No contest. At least as far as I was concerned.
Even on the still icy streets. Clouds had begun to form in the distance and it looked
like more snow on the way. No appointments until three this day. That would give me time
to pick up my clothes from the laundry, then shower and change. The number still hung over
me like a deadly premonition. Eleven. As did the face of the young girl who’d died in my
“So, we’ve decided to change roles, have we?” Jackson was an on-again, off-again friend
of mine in the psych department. “I usually ask the questions. Now it’s your turn?”
“It is,” I said. “But it’s really strange. Where can something like this come from?”
Jackson mulled it over as he turned his pencil around between his lips.
“Maybe a cigar’s just a cigar?”
“So, eleven’s just a number that somehow got fixed in my mind?”
“So how do I get it unfixed?”
“How about another number?”
“Twenty two? Where’d that come from?”
“Two times eleven. Where’d eleven come from?”
We locked eyes for a minute, and then I turned away.
“Fat lot of help you are,” I said.
“Back to you. You think of a number and ask me what it means. Not much to go on.”
“But the girl.”
“The dead one?”
“Yes. What about that?” he said.
“What about that?”
“I asked you first.”
“Basically, yes. Happened on the same day. You correlated the two things. All there is
“You guys always make it sound so simple,” I said.
“So that’s it?”
Jackson gave it some more thought.
“Or you’re going nuts,” he said.
“You have been acting kind of strange the past few days.”
“Wouldn’t you be? If a young girl had died in your arms?”
“They ever tell you her name?” Jackson asked.
“No. I’m not sure they know.”
“Oh, they know. Get with it, Will. Twenty first century. We have television sets and
“Maybe you should call them and see what’s what.”
“They’ll only tell me it’s none of my business.”
“Suppose so,” he said.
We both stared somewhere else.
“An idea, though.”
I left him sitting there, staring out at the dismal winter landscape from his office
window. Three stories above the front steps of the computer science building. Returned to
my lonely little cubicle. Late afternoon and the sky had completely clouded over. Light snow
drifted idly down as if it had nothing better to do. Neither did I especially, though I decided
to call the cops anyway. After various electronic voices and the office staff finished with me, I
finally connected with the man who’d interviewed me the day of her death.
“Will Francis. The guy who carried the girl into the Computer Science building at the
U. the other day?”
“What can I do for you?”
“Checking in. I was curious if you’ve found whoever did it.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Funny, I told a friend of mine you’d say something like that.”
“Good for you.”
“Okay. She died right in front of me. I’ll live with it for the rest of my life. Looked like
a sweet kid. I’d like to know who she was and if you’ve got the bastard yet.”
“Yes and no,” Patton said.
“Yes and no?”
“Yes we know her name. And no we haven’t got the bastard yet.”
He waited. The line seemed to go dead.
“Thought I’d lost you.”
“No such luck.”
“So what’s her name?” I asked.
“What’s it to you?”
“Jesus. What’s your problem? I’ve already told . . . “
“Student?” I asked.
“No. A friend of a student.”
“Damn, Francis, you’re a pest.”
“Thanks. What’s the friend’s name?”
“Melissa Gable. As in Clark. No relation.”
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“Read it in the papers.”
And he hung up.
That evening, as I walked around the corner of my apartment building coming home
from my office, something struck me as odd. Something there that shouldn’t be. Or maybe
something not there that should be. I couldn’t tell which. A hunch. But I’d become dependent
on such intuitions since the day she’d called out for help. And since ‘eleven.’
The man had waited for me behind the front hedge. I should have noticed the open
gate. He ran directly at me and doubled me over with a fist to the stomach, followed by
jerking both his hands upwards into my jaw. Before I knew it, I’d fallen backward into the
snow. Trying to catch a breath. Shaking my head to see if he would follow up. He did.
One swift kick into his groin, though, and I’d equalized the playing field. Both down.
Neither out. He rolled to his left, catching one of my legs in a scissor hold and twisting as
hard as he could. Guy was a pro. And he knew Bokator. I forced him to let go by ramming my
free foot into one of his knees. While he folded up from the pain, I staggered to my feet, still
out of breath from his initial assault. He swept his arm over the grass hoping to grab one of
my legs. When I stepped back to avoid him, I recognized my assailant. From class. Another
test? Cato Fong attacking Jacques Clouseau? I almost reached down to help him up. Then I saw
his eyes. A predator. Not a test.
He grabbed my left hand and pulled me down on top of him. Close quarters. Easier or
harder, depending on the level of your opponent. I ripped my free hand’s thumbnail up his
stomach and rammed it into his Adam’s apple. He wasn’t prepared for it. But he recovered
quickly, grabbed my thumb, and twisted it so violently I thought he’d broken a bone. I didn’t
wait to feel the pain. Instead, I slammed my head into his, knocking us both senseless for a
Suddenly he pulled a knife. On our knees now, I fended him off with a few wide arcs of
my left arm. Somehow he got to his feet, still keeping me away with the knife. I stared at him
and then he turned and ran. Why? No idea. He’d gotten the best of it so far. I watched him
disappear around the corner and down a side street. Limping from my blow to his knee.
Unfortunately, I was too exhausted from the skirmish to follow him.
‘That’s two,’ I thought. A warning? A little something to keep me from investigating
the girl’s death? I remembered her name. Julia Robbins. Not one of my students. A friend of
Melissa Gable. Attending the university, but not one of my students either.
I brushed myself off, turned, and found my apartment door. What had just happened?
A girl’s murder with the murderer out to make sure I didn’t talk? But why run away? I’d
gotten a good look at him. He should’ve stayed and finished the job. Or tried to, at least.
Looking in my bathroom mirror didn’t show much damage. Our heads had collided
above my hairline and while I felt a bruise, none visible. Nor blood. My thumb still worked
and no bones had broken. I could still feel the opening blow, though. He’d caught me before
I’d had a chance to tighten the muscles, and it felt like mush in there. Mostly intestines, so I’d
know pretty soon whether anything had torn.
Patton wasn’t happy to hear from me. But he listened nonetheless.
“And you’re sure it was the same guy as in your class?” he said.
“Except you can’t remember his name?”
“Not sure I ever knew it. We didn’t have introductions. All you need to do is phone
the master and he’ll tell you. Give him the description.”
“The expert. The teacher there.” And I gave him the address and phone number.
“And you’re sure about this?”
And Patton hung up on me again.
I spent the next few days teaching and watching television for news that the cops had
found Julia’s killer. Nothing. Even for a relatively small university town in the middle of
winter that seemed strange. So I called Patton again.
“Did you find the guy yet?”
“What guy? The one who killed Julia or the one who jumped you?”
“What’s it to you?” Patton said.
“Not this again.”
“We found him.”
“And nothing. For Julia he had an airtight alibi. Not our man.”
“You check him for the night he attacked me?”
“Airtight alibi?” I asked.
“Arrest him. Assault and battery.”
“Says he didn’t do it. You say he did. What we call a ‘he said, she said’ thing. Come on
down and we can swear out a warrant for him. And then he’ll complain about your
harassment and we’ll swear out a warrant for you. After that we send the thing to court. Take
months. Otherwise, zip. Nada. Nothing.”
“You took his word?”
“No. He said he didn’t do it. You said he did. What you told me, you got the better of
it anyway. He ran away.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“As I said, come down and make a complaint. We’ll pull him in and make it official.
The lawyers take over from there. None of my business after that. I don’t know either one of
“But why’d he do it?”
“Got me. Maybe he doesn’t like you. I can see his point.”
“Yeah. What’s his name?”
“Not at liberty to tell you that.”
This time I hung up on him. Didn’t make us even. But it was a beginning.
I sat in front of my computer and pulled up my favorite browser. Time to really take
advantage of the twenty-first century. Just for the hell of it, I looked up Patton first. Twenty
years on the force. Lots of collars. From all I could see and understand, he’d been a good cop.
Maybe he’d gone over the edge when he’d met me.
Next I tried Julia Robbins. Not much. A Face Book page with her photograph and a list
of twenty or so friends, none of whose names I recognized. I looked at her face. Exactly as I
remembered it. Though not as filled with pain. She was beautiful. Not in a Monroe sense. In
the way that some young women have of looking right into your soul. That ‘gotcha’ look.
Though friendly. Someone you’d like to sit down for coffee with. For the rest of your life.
Her short bio listed several interests. Sailing. Chemistry. Reading mystery novels.
Nothing much there for me. Though I didn’t really know what I was looking for. The rest of
the Robbins were guys who worked for various banks, lawyer firms, and one who collected
taxes for Uncle Sam. Nothing about her mother, father, family, relatives, loved ones,
Melissa Gable proved much the same. Not quite as pretty. Dark hair. Sultry eyes.
Majoring in chemistry. Fewer friends. Julia not among them. Maybe they hadn’t been close. So
not much there either.
I looked up my Bokator studio in hopes of finding class lists. No such luck. My
assailant still had no name. I tried phoning, but the place had closed for the evening. I left a
message for the master to call me when he got the chance. Maybe he’d give me a name.
Maybe not. Left several numbers where I could be reached. Office, home, lab.
I gave up. Went out to eat dinner. Tired of the same old, same old. Took the first few
steps carefully, prepared for another assault had my attacker come back for more. He hadn’t.
Really snowing now. Several inches had fallen since I’d last been outside. Looked like
more of the same coming. I chose a place nearby so I wouldn’t have to chance a long trip
back. A mom and pop about two blocks from my place. Good home cooking. Nothing fancy.
That’s when it struck me. While I walked through the snow. I was born on the
eleventh of November. 11/11/79. Two out of three wasn’t bad. Though no cigar. Or was I
making too much of this. Why did it have to be three elevens? Two would do. Why two?
‘You’re going over the edge, Francis,’ I told myself.
The snow was going on two feet deep by the time I reached the diner. And coming
down harder. I’d have to eat quickly in order to be able to get back to my apartment before
everything got snowed in.
I sat at my favorite table and looked around for anyone I might know. Popular place.
No one there except me and the waitress on her way to take my order.
“Professor F,” she said as she approached my table. Her favorite nickname for anyone
she knew. The first letter of their last names.
“Doris,” I replied. My favorite name of anyone I knew. Their actual name.
“What’ll it be tonight?”
“Usual,” I said. Meaning hamburger, fries, and a cold one.
She grimaced, no doubt counting the lesser number of days I had left in my life due to
my cholesterol levels. She wrote some kind of shorthand in her pad, gave me a brief smile,
and returned to the kitchen from where she’d emerged.
I could see the snow falling outside the large front window. A blizzard was
developing. The snow piled up against the glass showed me a cross section of yellow old
versions and white new ones. Like the rings in a tree stump. A brief history of the past few
As I watched, a figure suddenly appeared, walking steadily left to right. No coat or
hat. Nothing to prevent me from seeing her face. Julia Robbins. The dead girl. Walking
through the snow as if it weren’t there. Gliding over its surface. With nothing to protect her
from the elements. Brutally cold. Windy.
I shook my head back and forth. This couldn’t be. I was going nuts.
And then she began to vanish. The snow coming down harder?
I stood up, walked to the door, and pulled it open. The wind hit me like a
sledgehammer, and the snow blinded me for a second. Without my coat on, I felt like a
freeze-dried tomato. I looked around. No Julia. Not even footprints in the snow to indicate
she’d walked by. Of course, the snow was coming down so hard, her steps could have easily
I closed the door, needing all my strength to do so. Doris had come out to see what
was wrong. I’d messed up the floor with wet snow.
“What the hell?” she managed to say.
“Thought I saw someone I knew out there,” I told her.
“On a night like this?”
And I made my way back to my table and sat down. Will Francis in a straight jacket.
Maybe it had eleven sleeves. Or it took the asylum’s entire staff of eleven to hold me down to
get it on me.
My beer had come and I took a long deep drink of it. And tried not to look out the
front window. For fear she’d come by again. Worse yet, she might stand there watching me.
Wearing a light summer dress and looking like an angel. Maybe one of eleven angels.
But I couldn’t help myself. I looked. I shouldn’t have. She was not only back and
wearing the same outfit, she was staring in through the glass directly at me. Smiling slightly.
As if it were some kind of practical joke that everyone was in on except me.
Her image faded again and she nearly disappeared as the snow hit the window from a
gust of wind.
Then I noticed something strange. Her image was surrounded by a kind of rectangle.
It too faded and returned with the changes in the wind.
And it struck me. She wasn’t outside. I was seeing a reflection of her on the inside of
the glass. She was behind me. Framed by a door of some kind.
I abruptly turned and, thank God, there she was. Standing in the wide doorway to the
kitchen. Half a puzzle solved. No one outside at all. Now all I had was a dead person standing
in the doorway of a diner’s kitchen.
“You,” I said.
She didn’t move. I expected her to run. She didn’t.
Instead she smiled again.
“I saw you looking at me in the window,” she said. The voice different than I
remembered it the day she died. Of course, she’d been under a lot of strain then. She’d been
“What are you doing here?” A fool question to ask.
“Where I work,” she said. Simple as that.
“Okay,” I said, “but you’re dead.” I realized as soon as the words left my mouth that it
was a stupid thing to say.
“I’m what?” she said.
I couldn’t repeat the words. Just too idiotic.
Then I noticed the placard pinned to the front of her dress. It read, “Dolly.” A
waitress. Doris and Dolly.
“Dolly,” I said, unable to think of anything else at the moment.
I gave it some thought. ‘That’s three.’ Or was it? Still fixating.
“You remind me of someone. Sorry.” I said.
“My God,” she said. “Who?”
“No matter. Would you mind coming over here and sitting for a minute. I’d like to
talk to you.”
She looked around the place. “Not exactly rush hour,” she said. And carefully, and
slowly too, she walked in my direction.
When she’d sat down across from me, still a little wary, I realized that while she
resembled Julia Robbins, up close the resemblance was less remarkable. She was older. Her
hair darker. She wore makeup. And the more I noticed these things, the more I realized how
much I’d remembered of Julia.
“Did you know her well?” she asked me.
“Who?” I said, and realized how stupid that sounded. “Oh, her.” Stupider.
She waited for an answer.
“I didn’t actually know her. It’s just that she died in my arms.” All out in the open now.
“Maybe you read about it? On campus a few days ago?”
“Oh yeah. I remember. That was you?” She looked ready to bolt for the door. Sitting
across from a possible murderer.
“Yes. I tried to save her. Didn’t make it.”
“You’re the professor at the U.” Not a question.
“I am.” And I waited for her to calm down. Unsure of what to say next. An apparition
first, now real.
“What’s your last name?” I asked her.
“My last name?”
“Curious. You look so much like her. You could be twins.”
“My last name. I’m Dolly Ward.”
“Ever know anyone named Julia Robbins?”
“That the girl’s name?”
I sat back in my chair, realizing that the whole episode had been a sort of Vertigo
moment. When Jimmy Stewart had met Kim Novak on the streets of San Francisco and
mistaken her for the dead wife of his former client. Great film. But only that. Not reality.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
“That’s alright. It must have been quite a shock to have had that happen and then see
my reflection in the window.”
“Can I go now?” she asked.
Not realizing she’d felt herself a prisoner, I said, “Of course. Again, I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” she said, and made her way back to the kitchen.
I left half my burger on the plate, and took my fries home. Figured I might need some
nourishment later on when my heartbeat returned to something less than three hundred.
I was in Jackson’s office again. Attempting to keep warm while getting my weekly
dose of offhand therapy. The place smelled like old books, the kind that covered his walls in
floor to ceiling cases. He didn’t use the fluorescent overheads, but had a soft lamp on his desk
for lighting. All he needed was a smoking jacket to make it just like home.
“When was your last date?” he asked me.
“My last date? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You’ve been telling me about how innocent this dead girl seemed. That’s what.”
“You think I’ve got the Laura thing?”
“Laura? She you’re last date?”
“The movie, idiot. Laura. The one where the detective falls in love with the girl in the
painting. The dead woman who turns out alive in the end.”
“Never saw it,” Jackson said.
“No, I’m not falling in love with a dead girl.”
“Could’ve fooled me, Francis. It’s all we ever talk about anymore. Your fixation.”
“Jesus. You think I’ve got a fixation now? She died in my arms. That’s all. Wouldn’t that
get your attention?”
“Probably. That’s why I’m so confused by the vigor of your non-denial denial.”
“All the President’s Men,” I said.
“That one I saw. Hoffman and Redford, right?”
“Yes.” We see a lot of movies in North Dakota.
“Any more clues?” Jackson asked.
“None. Like you, I’m thinking it’s all coincidence. I wake up with a number in my head
and a girl dies in my arms the same day. Then someone tries to kill me another day. Three
different things. Unrelated?”
He looked pensive for a moment. As if he’d had second thoughts about it. After all, it’d
been his idea in the first place.
“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts,” I said.
He didn’t answer. A non-answer answer.
“Not thinking about that. Just about the girl. Why would someone kill a young girl
like that? For what reason? I’m having trouble coming up with anything beyond a
relationship gone bad. And even that seems remote.”
“Agreed. Though she’s dead nonetheless.”
He went pensive again.
“Now you’re getting obsessed,” I said.
“Could be. But the whole thing smells fishy somehow. Heard anything from the cops
“It’s a ‘don’t call them and they won’t call me’ kind of thing.”
“A what?” Jackson said.
“No. And I won’t hear from them. Told me basically to read the papers and stay out of
“Hmm? What’s that mean?”
“The Big Sleep. Bogart,” I said.
“Okay, Chandler. But you’re thinking I should investigate on my own?”
“No. I’m sure the police can do quite well without your help.”
“Then why bring it up?” I asked him.
“Wanted to know. That’s all.”
“What should I do?”
“Get a date, Will. How long’s it been?”
Hell of a conversation. I pushed my chair up against the wall and left him staring out
the window. Pensive.
Hadn’t heard anything about my assailant, so when I got to my twice-a-month Bokator
class I asked the master face to face. I had to describe him since I didn’t know his name. The
master was not too fluid in English so this took awhile. He finally got it.
“Not here anymore. Quit.”
A lot of words from the master.
“Do you know his name?”
“Yes,” he said, and stopped. As if he’d answered my question.
“What is it?”
“Can’t tell you.”
“Why not?” I was getting surprisingly paranoid. First Patton and now this guy.
“Police,” he said.
Not this again.
“What did they tell you?”
“Told me not to tell you.”
He looked away from me for a minute. Unsure of his words.
“They say you might hurt him,” he said.
“Hurt him? He jumped me for Christ’s sake. I haven’t done anything. Yet.” Adding that
final word gave me a good idea of why Patton had told the master to keep quiet on the
“Okay,” I said. “Forget it. Sorry I asked.”
He turned and we began class. Someone else’s chances to get the crap beat out of them
as we watched and learned.
I returned to the university to finish grading papers. I parked at my apartment, and
decided to walk to my office. Maybe Jackson was right. I was fixated on the girl who fell into
my arms that day and died. Jackson knew more about such things, after all. Although I had
serious doubts about the field in which he specialized.
Yet here I was. A bright sunny afternoon. Blue sky above. Standing on the melted ice
of the sidewalk, looking across the snow-strewn meadow toward where I imagined her still
calling to me for help.
For a reason I couldn’t tell you, I walked toward the spot where she’d stood while she
died. The holes in the snow had long since disappeared given the heavy snow that had fallen
the day after. And most of that had melted, revealing brown grass peeking up in spots.
I had plenty of time. Semester break. Christmas holidays. Students all warm and snug
with their families. Me walking slowly across a meadow looking for what? Clues? How many
times had the cops wandered through here? What did I know about such things? Between
Jackson’s analysis and the Patton’s defiant refusals to tell me anything, I couldn’t stand it
anymore. No one except me and Julia had really been involved in this. Maybe she would help
me? Or at least that’s how I rationalized my being out here by myself looking for something.
As I walked, I paid attention to two things. Instinctively I looked from side to side for
anything that she might have dropped as I’d carried her — or while we’d, the student and
me, carried her — to the foyer of the Computer Science Building. I also considered the fact
that I suddenly felt vulnerable. As if whoever had killed her was now looking right at me.
Waiting for me to find something. Waiting to put one right between my eyes.
Had she been shot? I didn’t even know that for sure. The papers hadn’t mentioned it.
Patton sure as hell hadn’t told me anything about it. I’d assumed it. After all, the murderer
couldn’t have thrown a knife that far. Could he?
Now that I thought about it, was the person I saw far across the meadow actually the
perpetrator? Maybe Julia had walked further than I thought, and the person who turned and
ran was only a student, afraid to get involved. At that moment I realized the full extent of
what I didn’t know. Julia Robbins, friend of Melissa Gable, was dead. That was about it.
I stopped somewhere near where she’d reached me. Nothing there as far as I could see,
except some snow and bits of ground. Maybe it wasn’t the spot. I bent over and ran my
fingers through the brittle blades of grass. Dirt. Small stones. Nothing shiny. No clues.
I stood and looked in the approximate direction where the man — or was it a man,
could I be sure? — had stood.
And there he was. Standing just as he had that fateful day.
“Good God,” I said. Out loud. It couldn’t be. Maybe a reflection from behind me? In the
window of the diner?
I waited for him to run. Or fade away. He didn’t. Instead, he looked directly at me, as if
daring me to come further. I didn’t. And the seconds ticked by. Very slowly.
This is nuts, I told myself. Where was Patton when I needed him?
I blinked my eyes. Still there. Not moving. At least he didn’t have a rifle. Not that I
could see anyway. He could have one by his side pointing toward the sky, and at this distance
I wouldn’t know it.
Wait a second. What am I doing? Was this guy following me? Or had he stayed out here
since the day it happened and waited for me to return? Through all that snowfall? Not likely.
This was only someone who’d happened upon the meadow, saw me looking at the ground,
and wondered what the hell I was doing out here. Or maybe it was a cop they’d posted here
to watch out for the murderer in case he returned to the scene of his crime.
He didn’t move. Nor did I.
“Will?” A voice called out.
Did I know this guy?
“What are you doing out there?”
Then I realized the sound had come from behind me. From where the guy who’d
called out was really standing. I turned.
“Jackson?” I said.
“Yeah. What’s going on?”
“See that guy behind me?”
Thank God, I told myself. Not my imagination. Not a reflection.
“Come here a second, will you?” I asked.
“Just do it, will you?”
And he did. Hopping gingerly from grass spot to grass spot to not ruin his shiny shoes
or his perfectly creased designer pants.
“What’s up?” he said when he got to me. “This where it happened?”
“So what’s this about the guy behind you?”
“He’s standing where the guy who murdered her stood and then ran.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit of a coincidence?”
“Jesus, Will. You’re really going over the edge. It’s a open meadow. Anyone can walk
here. What are the chances that it's the same person? After all this time do you really think
that . . .“ and he stopped midsentence.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Except he’s not there anymore.”
I turned and looked.
And he wasn’t there.
‘That’s four,’ I thought.
“Don’t you think that’s a little strange?” I asked Jackson.
“No. He had someplace to go, and went. That’s all.”
“Did you see him go?”
“I can see his footprints in the snow patches. Even from here. But, to answer your
question, no, I didn’t see him actually go. You suggesting he disappeared?”
“No. I just wondered if he ran or walked.”
“You’re losing it, Will.”
I was. And I knew it.
“Let’s go inside. Cold out here.”
“Why’re you here in the first place? It’s a holiday, Jackson.”
He looked at me strangely.
“Christ, Will, you suspicious of me now?”
That was pretty far out there and I knew it. But I didn’t answer his question.
“Come to turn in my final grades. My computer at home is all balled up, so I’ve got to
do it here. Satisfy you?” He looked a little hurt by my insinuation. And I felt a bit stupid.
“Sorry,” I said. “Standing where I had when I held her dying and seeing that man
suddenly there like that . . .“
“I didn’t see him when I was walking. Then he was there.”
“Like the number eleven?”
“Jesus, Jackson, am I never going to live that down?”
“Probably not,” he said, and smiled. And we entered the building. And warmth.
Jackson said, “So here’s what we have. You got out of the wrong side of bed, walked to
school, and heard someone scream. You tried to help her, and she died in your arms. Later on,
someone jumps you. Not connected. You may have accidently tripped him in class, or he’s
jealous that you’re better than he is. Even you said he ran away. You subsequently saw a girl
who looked like the one you tried to save. Turned out to be a reflection in a window. And you
walked into the field where the girl was killed this afternoon and saw someone who looked
like her killer. At long distance. Everything can be explained except the one thing.”
“Who killed her?”
“Right. And the cops are working on that.”
“Are they?” I said.
“Slowly, I’ll admit, but some cases are more difficult than others.”
“Can you disagree with any of it? You’re suffering from a case of the jitters. I know
I’ve said it before, but you’re not helping anyone this way. Get a hold of yourself, before you
make it worse.” Jackson in his psychology mode.
“Why won’t the cops release any information? At least to those of us involved.”
“Don’t know. But I can imagine reasons.”
“Maybe you’re a suspect,” he said.
“Huh?” I said.
“They only have your word you saw someone out there besides the girl. And you had
her blood all over you.”
“Wouldn’t I be under arrest if they suspected me?”
“Not necessarily. They may be keeping an eye on you. Seeing if you give yourself
“You really think that?”
“What, that they’re keeping an eye on you?”
“Any of it?” I asked.
“No. You’re a college professor. They figure the girls are all over you. Maybe if it
turned out she was pregnant they might figure you as a potential. Or if you were married
and she was threatening to give your wife the lowdown. Except you’re not the type.”
“What about eleven?” I asked.
“Okay, now, you brought that up this time. Not me.”
“What do you think about ‘eleven?’” Jackson said.
“I don’t know what to think about any of it. I know less about things than I did
Jackson finished entering his grade lists and turned toward me, the first time he had
since we’d begun our discussion.
“I think you should get some rest, Francis. Make a date. It’s semester break. The
holidays for Christ sake. Enjoy your time off. Travel. Forget about it and let the cops figure it
out. Seems like I’ve told you all this before.”
And I left him sitting in his chair smiling smugly to himself.
I went to my office and called Patton again. After the usual ring around with the
various protective virtual and real people he answered.
“I know you’re sick of hearing from me, but I think I deserve to know something
about the investigation. After all, I’m a victim, too. She chose me for help. I let her down.”
“Francis? That you?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Besides you. No.”
“Besides me? What do you mean?” Jesus, was Jackson right?
“I mean that you’re the only witness. You had her blood all over you. We have only
you saying you didn’t do it.”
“And what about a motive, a weapon, the man who ran away, the fact that I did
everything I could to save her?”
“Maybe you had a change of heart after you shot her.”
“She was shot?”
“How else does she bleed like that?” Patton said.
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“We have a few leads. So far nothing concrete.”
“That the kind of bullshit you tell everybody when you haven’t a clue?” I asked him.
“Am I really a suspect?”
“If you were, you’d be locked up. Though I’m not ruling the possibility out. For that
matter, at this point I’m not ruling anything out.”
“So you’re stumped.”
“We’ll get there. Some things take time. This looks like one of those.”
“You having me followed?” I asked him.
“Followed? Why would I do that?”
“Did one of your men follow me to the place where I found her today?”
“You went back there? I told you to leave this to us. Stay out of it.”
He’d answered my question. I hung up on him again. Close to a tie now.
Returning to my apartment, I found five graduate students waiting outside my front
“We’ve been here nearly an hour,” one of them said.
I gave it some thought.
“Our monthly session on the research in my lab?” I said reflexively.
“You forgot. Again.”
“I did. Lots of things going on right now. Sorry.” And I let them in before they ate the
door of my apartment.
Four guys. One gal. Five empty stomachs. Once inside, they went wherever they
wanted. Sat, scrunched, and lay on or over my furniture and waited.
“Said I was sorry.”
They stared at me.
“What’s to eat?”
Damn, I’d forgotten that, too. Once a month we had dinner together to let me catch
up on their latest accomplishments. Or lack of such. To which they’d receive special co-
authorship on published papers in noteworthy journals. I get the ideas, they did the work. I
got the lion’s share of the credit. They hopefully found jobs. Perfect. And I fed them once a
month. Of course, they also earned their salaries from the grants I received. It was a racket to
which I wholeheartedly subscribed. Exploitation. I would have fought the hell against it if it
weren’t so productive.
I ransacked my kitchen coming up with enough non-perishable food to keep them
busy for a while. Brought it out to the living room along with a couple of can openers and let
them at it. I returned to the kitchen for a case of beer stored there for such occasions. Warm.
Just like home.
A nice group of kids. Bright and eager. Wish I could remember their names.
Unfortunately, if I knew one or two names and used them, I’d embarrass the others by not
remembering theirs. I therefore preferred to remember none of their names. Easy.
“So,” I said, when their initial eating frenzy slowed slightly, “what’s up these days?”
One of the skinnier ones looked up at me. “What’s with the dead girl? Did they find
out who did it yet?” No time waster this one.
“Don’t know,” I said, noticing how threadbare their clothes looked. I could never tell
whether this was a practiced look, or the result of not giving a damn. “I’ll know when the
cops tell me.”
“You a suspect?”
“They tell me not. Although you never can tell.”
“Happened to me once.”
“A girl fell into your arms and died?” I asked him.
“No. Hit and run. A dog.”
“A dog? Not quite the same thing.”
“In principle it was. Cops wouldn’t tell me a thing.”
The overall sounds of food chewing had slowed enough by then that others realized
they were missing a conversation.
“How’s the lab work going?” I asked, more to change the subject than out of actual
“Some new results.”
“You might say that.”
“I did say that. What?”
“Well, the Langton number-bots are procreating like a massive gang-bang.”
“But?” I asked.
“Still having trouble with forming something meaningful from the primordial soup
you gave us.”
I realized how unintelligible this might sound to someone not versed in artificial life
studies. A-Life. We had previously used digital images constructed of numbers to birth
similar but not identical versions of virtual beings. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet figured out
how to create such ‘number-bots’ naturally rather than programming them ourselves. This
was an important distinction. Produced by us, they were simple tools. Produced from chaotic
number soup, these ‘bots’ could be the birth of a self-ordered unpredictable new form of life.
Metaphorical or real? No one knew. Yet.
“I’ve calculated probabilities against us at five times ten to the millionth power,” I
said. “Not good odds.”
“We need a step by step process rather than just hoping for the best.”
And on and on. They fought almost continuously. A good thing. Except we often
bogged down in no-win scenarios and obsessed over them. I was the ringmaster. Once a
month to unhook them from their tangents and get them back on track.
I said, “Maybe we should begin with the most promising soup, and see if anything
develops. Then take that, and so on. Maybe the number-bot won’t appear. Ever. Maybe
something better will. Self-organization has its way.”
I could see the wheels turning.
Several hours later, and with the beer taking its toll on them and me, we adjourned.
Before they left, I gave them one final idea to ponder.
“The number eleven mean anything to any of you?”
“Like eleven days to Christmas?”
“Is that right?” I asked.
“Have no idea.”
They calculated. I waited. No idea what the date was.
“It’s ten days,” one of them said. “Week after two days from tomorrow.”
Circumlocution. No one wanted to translate that and they left me with the mess.
I didn’t have the heart or the stomach to clean it up. However, after watching TV for a
few minutes, the smell of tuna fish, sardines, and peanuts got to me. I dumped the mostly
empty cans in the trash, emptied what was left in the bottles, and took it all out to the
As I shuffled off to bed without undressing, I considered how little we’d actually
accomplished during the past year. Thank God for the NSF funding cycle, I thought. A
ridiculous way to do business. Though without it we’d all probably be out on the street
having to do real work.
The next morning I called admissions for all the data they had on one Melissa Gable,
friend of Julia Robbins. I knew the cops would have already talked to her, but hoped that
maybe, just maybe, they’d not told her to keep her mouth shut like they had my Bokator
Getting her phone number, I called her in the dorms. Being winter break I didn’t
expect an answer.
“Yes?” she said cautiously. Or was that only my paranoia?
“Yes?” Still cautious. Maybe more so.
“I’m the professor who found your friend Julia and tried to save her life. Will Francis.
“I’m trying to find out a little about her and wonder if you’d be willing to talk to me
for a few minutes. Anytime. Wherever you want.”
She was a one-word wonder.
“The police are keeping the incident close to their vest. I keep waiting for the
newspapers to tell me something. Or the Internet. Nothing doing. She died in my arms. You
must imagine how that has affected me. I need to know a little something about who she
She thought about that for a minute. I could hear her breathing. Nothing else.
Not going to get much out of Melissa if this were the extent of her vocabulary.
“When and where is good for you?”
“This afternoon at two. At the College Inn?”
“Is it open?” I asked her.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Semester break. Lots of places close.”
“Okay. What do you look like?”
Back to one word again.
“So I can recognize you when I get there. Not go up to a stranger and ask if it’s you.”
“I’ll wear a beige coat,” she said.
As if that would do the trick. I let it go.
“Okay, see you then. And thanks. I really appreciate it.”
She hung up the phone without a goodbye. Lot of that going around.
I found Melissa easily. She was the only one in the place with a beige coat. Actually,
she was the only one in the place at all. Aside from a waitress flitting her way around and
wiping the tables.
Melissa had taken a booth. I approached her a bit cautiously and told her who I was.
She smiled and offered me a set opposite her.
She couldn’t have looked more different than Julia. Plain. Her brown hair pulled back
into a bun. Only her gray-blue eyes caught my attention. They looked like nobody was home.
That day, or any other.
She was drinking coffee. I motioned the waitress over and ordered the same. Not that
it looked or smelled good. But I didn’t want to waste any time given the apparent disinterest
Melissa had shown in my problem.
“I’m sorry about your loss,” I said.
“Your friend. Julia.”
“You two were friends, no?”
“We knew each other slightly. Not much more than that.”
News to me.
“Can you tell me a little about her?”
“Not much to tell. She’s a cousin of sorts.”
”My stepfather’s sister’s girl.”
I’d just doubled my knowledge about her.
“So you didn’t know Julia well?”
“We’d met a few times. Didn’t have much in common.”
“What kind of times?”
“Family gatherings. That sort of thing.”
“Why was she coming to see you?”
“No idea. Maybe she wasn’t.”
“She never told you she’d be coming?” I asked.
“No. As I told the cops, it was a complete surprise to me.”
“Any reason you can think of that she might appear suddenly?”
“Always those. But neither of us was interested in them. I guess we had that in
My coffee arrived and we stopped talking for a minute.
When the waitress left, I asked her “Can you tell me anything about Julia?”
“Was she popular? Did she smoke? That kind of thing.”
“You must have talked about something. Noticed something about her.”
“She talked funny,” Melissa said. Takes one to know one, I thought.
“Used big words a lot.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Don’t know really. Prosthelytize. I remember that one. She used it a lot.”
“In what context?”
“How’d she use it?”
“Mostly about her parents. She told me they prosthelytized at her a lot.”
“Did you ask her what she meant by that?”
“No. I didn’t want to appear dumb.”
“Okay. Anything else different about her?”
“Actually, yes,” she said. Caught my attention.
“She didn’t look like any of us. Not her parents or mine.”
“She was beautiful. I mean really beautiful. The rest of us are okay, I guess. Even
without makeup she could be a movie star. Didn’t you notice?”
“I guess I was a bit busy to notice.”
She looked down. Maybe she cared more than she let on.
“A lovely girl who used big words,” I reminded her.
Back to one word answers.
“She have brothers or sisters?”
“Have brothers or sisters?”
Like pulling hen’s teeth. Change the subject.
“What do you major in?” I asked.
“Just curious,” I said.
“Nothing yet. Thinking of going into business administration.”
“Doing okay? Gradewise?”
“I get by,” she said.
I took a sip of coffee. Not bad. Not good either. I added some virtual sugar as I called
“You’re a professor?”
A question. A breakthrough.
“We try to understand the brain by modeling its behavior using computers.”
And it went on like this for a time. Long enough for me to figure I’d gotten all I was
going to get. It had seemed like a lot when I’d begun. Turned out not so much.
After my meeting with Melissa, I headed back home. For whatever reason I decided to
take a shortcut through the football stadium. All quiet now. No bowl game this year. Bad
season for the local team.
As I walked toward where I imagined the fifty-yard line might be, I heard them, and
then saw them out of the corner of my eye. Two guys. Both bigger than I was. Taller and
broader. Definitely following me. And getting closer.
For some reason, I remembered back to a particular day in high school when I was a
freshman. Same situation. Smaller stakes. Two seniors. At first it had scared me. Thinking
about what they could do to me. Then I realized I had no place to hide. That they’d catch me
no matter how fast I ran. That made me mad. So mad, I’d instinctively turned and faced them.
And, without warning, I’d attacked the two of them. Straight on. Screaming as I went. It
wasn’t courage that drove me. Fresh out of alternatives, and, of course, temporarily insane, I
had no idea what to do if they’d stood their ground or run directly at me. Except they didn’t.
I’d caught them completely by surprise. They hadn’t had time to consult about it. To lean on
one another for support. Those moments had long gone. Their eyes had widened and I’d kept
coming. My mind completely free of anything except the charge. And they turned and ran
then. Two large guys able to do serious damage. And I didn’t care. As they ran, I kept yelling
and charging. And I chased them home like two crybabies. And I never had a problem again.
The word got out. About exactly what, I wasn’t sure. Maybe they thought I was crazy. Maybe
I knew all kinds of dirty tricks. Whatever. Probably all lies to protect their tough-guy
reputations. I didn’t give a damn. I never had any further problems.
Now it was happening again. I could feel the adrenaline surge. I wasn’t actually
reliving my earlier experience mentally. I was reliving it physically. A kind of madness, no
doubt. I stared directly at them. They stopped walking. I was completely outmanned. In
terms of numbers, brawn, and probably skills. Yes, I knew Bokator, if they ever gave me a
chance to use it. Mostly I was mad. Something inside me had snapped. No escape, so bring it
on. Attack first. Harder, faster, but most of all first. That gave me the advantage. Of course,
none of this mattered. Some kind of DNA thing. I had reverted to my animal self, and had no
I charged. All the while yelling in as loud and primal a voice as possible. I included a
few words. Something about eyeballs. Thumbing out their eyeballs, I think. It didn’t matter.
They were going to get one hell of a bundle of energy thrown in their direction. Following
the laws of motion, but not any rules of engagement. Any notion of Robert’s Rules went
completely out the window. I made that clear somehow, because I could read it in their eyes.
Just as I had those years ago in high school.
As the distance between us diminished, I could see them calculating the odds as best
they could under the circumstances. And, luckily, they came to only one conclusion. Get the
hell out of there as fast as possible. And they did. I chased them relentlessly. For my
adrenaline, my madness, had not relented. They had good reason to run. Every fiber of my
being wanted them to stop and try me. Not due to arrogance on my part, only raw anger. I
hated them so much that any ability to reason had vanished. They could run faster than me.
And did. And before long, they disappeared into the low fog rising off the snow. And I
slowed and finally stopped. I let the anger purge from my body. My heart beat a wild pace. I
thought for a second I might pass out. Still no fear. Not caring if I lived or died. Only that I
wreck as much havoc as I could on anything that came near me.
‘That’s five,’ I said.
Then I thought of Julia. Could she have done that? Not against a gun. Was she that
pretty? I hadn’t noticed in her picture. A looker yes. Beautiful? No. Was Melissa jealous of
Julia? Was I becoming obsessed? With a dead girl? Had Jackson figured it out? And who were
these two guys? Should I tell Patton about it? Would he care? They hadn’t actually done
anything to me. Was I imagining their intent? All good questions. No answers.
When I got back to my apartment it had begun to snow again. Not heavy. Steadily and
unceasingly. It would pile up and make travel difficult. God I was lonely. Jackson was right. I
needed a date. I sat down and gave it some thought.
Christmas eve, and I’d asked Dolly for a date. The Julia look-alike from the mom and
pop diner down the block from my apartment. The eatery had closed for Christmas, and she
was available. And surprised. While we theoretically don’t live in a caste system, she felt
strange dating a college professor. I was happy to prove her wrong.
The weather was almost balmy. In the sixties during the day, thirties at night. A storm
was on its way and set to hit around mid-afternoon Christmas day. Maybe a foot or more of
new snow. But now it was like an early spring, and we walked downtown to the theater there
to see an old movie. Perfect for me. A film buff. I couldn’t imagine she’d be interested,
though she’d smiled warmly and accepted, saying it might be fun.
As we walked together in the spring-like weather, I asked her to tell me something
about herself. Fearful of another Melissa type, I’d prepared myself for the worst. I got the
opposite. Dolly was a talkaholic. She told me about her family, about growing up, about how
school had been. The boys. Her teachers. I listened. Some of the time at least. As lively as her
stories were, she had a droning quality to her voice that got on my nerves. So I daydreamed.
And nodded every once in awhile to make her think I was listening.
I asked a question or two to avoid an unpleasant silence. Like, how was it to live in a
small college town. Or what subject she’d liked best in high school. I didn’t listen to the
answers. Maybe I should have. I looked at her a lot though. I’m sure she thought I kept eye
contact. Truth be known, I was looking at Julia. Imagining what it would be like if I were
walking with her instead of Dolly. And worrying that Jackson had been right. Fixation. On a
dead girl I’d never met. Who’d died in my arms.
The film was one of my favorites, The Maltese Falcon. Bogart acting. Huston directing
his own screenplay from a novel by Dashiell Hammett. I watched Dolly watch Bogart, Astor,
Greenstreet, and Lorre. She seemed mesmerized. Maybe watching something on a big screen
in black and white seemed strange to her. When we came to Bogart’s final lines, I couldn’t
help turn toward the screen and watch. Astor had just tried to convince Spade to overlook
her killing his partner.
I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you. If I do this and get away with it,
you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've
got something on you I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me
someday. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I
won't argue about that. But look at the number of them.
I thought I saw in tear in Dolly’s eyes. Only for a second. Then it disappeared. I was indeed
one screwed up dude.
As we walked back to her place, we talked about the film. Simple things. Was it only a
mystery, or did it have other meanings as well? She surprised me. She’d understood it as a
metaphor between principles and desire. She didn’t use those words exactly, though she’d
caught the drift. She’d loved Greenstreet’s character. The fat man. Named Gutman. Of his
apparent jolly exterior while being evil at heart. I actually felt comfortable with her. Maybe
her original sandblasting of me with verbiage was just nervousness. Maybe Jackson was right.
I’d needed a date.
As I watched her talk, I realized he’d been right about the fixation, too. More than
right. Spot on. I was transfixed. Had I heard what I wanted to hear? Was I talking to Dolly or
Julia? Was I nuts? All good questions.
We had a brief flirtation with a potential kiss when we said goodnight. Although it
never happened. By that time, I’d become pretty depressed about myself. I knew I’d
experienced a traumatic event with Julia’s death. However, I also knew that what had
happened since that fateful day could not have produced all the rest of the mess. I was not
only a victim of fate, I was at least partly the cause of it. Like Spade, I too had principles and
desires. I’d always chosen principles. Now? I wasn’t so sure.
When I arrived back at my apartment, I decided not to drink. That would have been
my usual MO. Instead, I crawled into bed early, at least for me, and thought long and hard in
the dark about everything I knew. And that’s when it hit me. Right between the eyes. Not
the whole picture exactly. But a first step in the right direction. I knew what to do next.
First thing in the morning I called Patton. Even Christmas day he was in.
I guess he couldn’t remember his name in the morning.
“I know something you ought to know,” I told him.
“That you Francis? I thought I told you to stay out of this thing.”
“You did. And I have. But the thing’s coming to me. I’m not going to it.”
“I know something they want to know.”
”So what do you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“More to it.”
“Jesus, Francis. Our kids are sure in good hands with you teaching them.”
I took that in stride.
“Don’t you want to know who wants to know?”
“Okay, who wants to know what you know, but you don’t know what it is they want to
“The two guys who came after me.”
“Two guys came after you? What are you talking about?”
Two guys came after me yesterday in the football stadium.”
“I chased them off.”
“In your dreams, Francis.”
“I did. Big guys.”
Silence. Even I could figure out what he was thinking. I actually didn’t blame him.
Sounded pretty lame to me, too.
He hung up on me. Faster on the draw this time. I hadn’t seen it coming.
Whether he knew it or not, I was right. I called him back.
“Yeah?” Still his morning voice.
“Listen. And don’t hang up. If a guy’s going to shoot an unarmed woman in the back
at a distance, why wouldn’t he shoot the person he thought was the only witness to the
“Or why wouldn’t he shoot me on the streets or blow up my apartment. What’s he got
to lose? He’s already killed one person. One more won’t matter. Instead he sends a Bokator
student and two big guys. They weren’t sent to kill me. Just rough me up. He needs me, you
see. He needs to know what I know.”
“And you don’t know you know it. Or now you’re sure you do know it, but don’t know
what it is.”
This time I hung up first.
“Gotcha,” I said.
It made sense to me. The first thing in this ugly mess that did. Now all I had to do was
figure out what I knew. Where to start?
Not a lot of things to do at ten in the morning on Christmas day with a storm ready to
hit. A big one. Although it seemed logical to get out and about. So I took a walk. This time
Everything was closed down tight. Not only for protection against burglars, but, I
imagined, to keep the blowing winds from driving snow into their places and ruining their
Nobody on the streets. Not even on this unseasonably warm winter day. The snow had
nearly disappeared. But not a car in sight. Driven or parked. I felt like the last man on earth.
Absolute silence. No sound of kids playing, Christmas songs sung, or cars honking. Just a
small North Dakota university town in the middle of pretty much nowhere celebrating with
their kids. The presents opened, put together by dear old dad, and meals being prepared.
That’s when I heard them coming. Behind me. I tried not to look. See them out of the
periphery of my vision. However, they’d kept their distance and that, along with the slight
fog already rising off the street from the last of the melting snow, kept me from seeing them
clearly. But I knew they were closing in. Walking faster than I was, and ready to confront me
again. I reminded myself to not let my fear turn to hate like it had the previous day. To
follow my teacher’s excellent advice and use my brain rather than my brawn, such as it was. I
remained calm and collected. They kept closing on me. And, I now saw, they were not the
same two that had followed me the last time.
I turned to face them, as I had the previous two. Calmly. No. My hate overrode my
fear, in spite of my desire that it not. But I saw it wouldn’t work this time. My two pursuers
held their ground. One swung a baseball bat back and forth like warming up for a big game.
The other didn’t need one. His muscles bulged from his clothes in places I didn’t know there
were places, no less muscles. They both glared at me. Willing me to come screaming at them
as I had the other two. Somebody had given my secret away.
And so I turned and ran in the other direction. Like I had promised I never would
again. Since that day in high school. Though I knew it wouldn’t work. These guys were not
only strong and well schooled, they were fast and confident. Within a minute, one of them
had grabbed my belt from behind with what I thought was a curled finger slowing me down.
I thought back to my Bokator training. And, with nothing more than a notion of what to do, I
dug in my heels and rammed both my elbows as hard as I could directly back into my
pursuer. Simultaneously, I bent down at the waist offering less of a target.
Two whooshes of air. The first I imagined came from air escaping his lungs from my
blows to his stomach. The second, clearly the sound of the bat he’d swung at my head missing
its mark. But not by much.
He collapsed, but didn’t let go of my belt with his finger. I went down with him. Flat
on the ground. Not a position of strength. My second pursuer, however, and luckily for me,
had not been as fast as the one with the bat. He tripped over his playmate first, and then me,
creating a swirl of dirty snow and a sound like an elephant hitting the ground. One move.
I was the first on my feet. The guy with the bat wasn’t getting up anytime soon. The
muscle-bound guy on the ground had already found his footing and had rearranged his
weight to stand. I had no time to lose. I lurched forward feet first, planting them both on his
chest and using as much body weight as I could behind the blow. He struggled to maintain
his balance. Couldn’t. Down he went again.
But, of course, I was down, too. I rolled sideways as my teacher had taught me, and
pulled myself to my feet again. This time hunched over to make less of a target. I hadn’t been
fast enough. He threw his body into mine with all his weight behind it. My breath escaped
quickly and I went down on top of the guy with the bat. My lungs screamed for air. My body
already ached, even with the adrenaline trying to cover it.
Vulnerable didn’t describe it. My back arching against the first guy’s prone body, and
my air blown out of me, I was a perfect target. Luckily, my second pursuer had to run out his
charge, and turn to attack me again. This took precious time, and helped me regain a
semblance of breath and footing.
As he rushed me again, I grabbed the baseball bat in both hands and, still in a sitting
position, whirled it once around my head hoping to scare him away. It didn’t work. He
wouldn’t scare easily. I was battered and bruised from only one of his rushes, and so wasn’t
prepared for another. Thus, as he arrived, aiming himself like a projectile toward me, I timed
my swing and caught him directly across the top of his head. It felt like a melon bursting
against a cement sidewalk. And he dropped like a sack of sand onto the street to my right.
I stood up as quickly as my body would allow, ready to take another charge. It was not
to be. His head was bleeding and he had tossed his cookies from the blast of the bat against
his scalp. He was out. For how long, I didn’t know. As I stood there watching, the first of my
assailants had righted himself. He shook his head, looked at his partner on the ground next to
him, and growled like some kind of gorilla in heat. I had no time for this. I cold cocked him
with the bat on the back of his head. I’d been taught well. Win when you have the
opportunity. Take no prisoners.
I watched them both lying there with the help of a bat one of them had thankfully
brought along. I was still angry. The animal in me had not run its course. At the same time, I
was disgusted by all this waste of energy. By the pain all three of us would feel the next day,
and the pointless aggression. Mostly I was proud of myself. Once again I had bested two to
one odds. I could hold my own against the tough guys. Well, maybe not the toughest, though
at least some of the biggest.
“Bring a gun next time, idiots.” I said to no one at all, for even I wasn’t listening. And I
walked away. Slowly, still breathing hard with short intakes of air, and feeling the man’s
weight seeping into my bones. I vowed to exercise more so that I could use muscle to ward
off the pain from such attacks. But, I thought, better to avoid them in the first place. Screw
the testosterone bullshit.
‘That’s six,’ I thought.
“Merry Christmas,” I said out loud as I walked into my apartment. “Bring on the storm.
I’m going to have a drink and a can of tuna fish.” A traditional Christmas meal. “Maybe watch
a football game on TV.”
I smelled a bit. Probably inherited from the two goons. And the ground I’d rolled
around on. Maybe the baseball bat I’d brought home as a souvenir. My lone Christmas present.
So, I took a long hot shower and ate a couple of aspirin with my tuna and Jim Beam. I
didn’t watch football. Not because I didn’t like football. But because there wasn’t any football.
Those games were set for New Year’s Day, not Christmas.
It began snowing right around three in the afternoon as predicted. I watched it fall
silently out of the sky. Apparently the wind would come later. It piled on the street and
everything outside my window slowly disappeared. The trees, the houses, the view.
Everything. All turning white. I think my eyes closed then. And I drifted toward warmer
climes, where bruisers didn’t chase you, and young girls didn’t get shot in the back as they
fell into your waiting arms.
I was almost there when my phone rang. Not my cell phone. My old-fashioned home
phone. The kind you plug into the wall that make horrific sounds when someone wants to
talk to you.
“Francis,” the voice yelled at me. “It’s Patton. Get down here now.”
“It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake,” I said, before I realized how dumb that sounded.
“Down here now, or I’ll send a couple of boys to drag you. They won’t be as nice as I
I was still half awake and a little hung over from the Beam.
“Okay,” I said, nothing else coming to mind.
By the time I exited the building, the snow had built up to two feet already, and the
wind had begun to blow. Hard. I thought seriously about going back inside and calling and
telling Patton to go ahead. Send his boys. The cars they used had heaters in them. And if they
could actually drive on the un-cleared roads, it’d be a lot nicer being driven than walking. By
then, unfortunately, I’d already gone too far from my door to see my place through the
blizzard, so I kept on going.
Luckily, the station was straight down my street and on the right. By keeping the
telephone poles to my left, I’d almost walk straight into it. If, that is, I could keep vertical in
the gusting wind. I did. And after ten or so freezing minutes, I made my way there and
inside. Looking like a snowman no doubt to those who cared.
Before I’d made it halfway to the front desk, two guys in plainclothes nearly picked
me up and carried me through the waist-high swinging doors and on back to Patton’s desk.
They didn’t say a word. I didn’t struggle. Efficiency at its finest.
“Jesus, Francis, you look like shit.”
I stared at him.
“Sit. There.” And he pointed at the chair across the desk from him.
“Where were you last night?”
“When last night?”
“In the evening. After dinner. Before bedtime.”
“At the movies.”
“What’d you see?”
“Maltese Falcon. And don’t ask me about the plot. I know it by heart. Maybe most of
the lines by now. What’s this about?”
“At the movies? No. I was with someone.”
“Dolly. A friend. Nothing more.”
I realized I didn’t know her last name. “Don’t know.”
“Just Dolly? What’s she look like?”
This was getting strange fast. But I described her without mentioning Julia. That
would have sounded stranger, even to me.
“Like this maybe?”
He held out an eight by ten glossy. I took a look.
“And you call her Dolly?”
“That’s her name.”
“Not this one. This one’s name is Doris.”
“Doris? She’s the other one.”
“The other one what?”
“The other waitress in the mom and pop dinner about two blocks down from my
apartment. Where I met Dolly.”
“So this is Doris?”
“No. Doris doesn’t look anything like this. This is Dolly.”
“You’re not making sense, Francis.”
“Neither are you. This is Doris. I don’t know her last name. And we went to the movies
last night together. Just a date on Christmas Eve. What’s the big deal?”
That stopped me in my tracks.
“No. Doris is dead. This is Doris. Who’s Dolly?”
“I don't know Doris,” I said. “She’s waited on me a few times, but I don’t really know
her. I went to the movies with Dolly. We walked there and back. We saw Maltese Falcon
together. I left her in front of her apartment and went home. You’re showing me a picture of
Dolly and telling me she’s Doris.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’ve been asking myself that since I first met you. And what’s that mark on your
“Oh that. A couple of guys ambushed me this afternoon. One of them had a baseball
bat. I took care of them.”
“You took care of them? Same two guys you told me tried to ambush you and you ran
them off in the football stadium?”
“No. Different two guys. These were much bigger and, like I say, one had a baseball
“And these two you fought and they ran away.”
“No. These two I clobbered over the head with their baseball bat and left them lying
on the street.”
“Anyone see this?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Maybe we should begin all over again.”
And we did. Unfortunately with the same result.
‘That’s seven,’ I thought.
“How’d she die?” I finally asked Patton.
“Somebody beat her to death.”
“My God. Where?”
“Outside her apartment. On her way inside.”
“When did you find her?”
“This afternoon. Early. Actually not long after I talked to you. Neighbor called it in.”
“When did she die?”
“Well, see, that’s the thing. The medical examiner says sometime between ten last
night and three this morning.”
“And nobody found her before this afternoon?”
“It’s Christmas, Francis. Everybody’s inside. And the students have gone home. The
town’s a morgue. No pun intended.”
“When did you drop her off at her place?”
“About eleven. Something like that.”
“She alive when you left her?”
“Well that makes it between eleven and three. Four hours. You sure she went inside?”
“I watched her go in. Made sure she turned the lights on.”
“A real gentleman.”
“Now, tell me about this baseball bat,” he said.
“The guys who ambushed me, or tried to, had one.”
“Medical examiner says she could have been beaten with a baseball bat. In fact those
were the first words out of his mouth.”
“Then maybe they could have done it. No, not likely. They’d have lost their bat to
“They lost it?”
“What, you’re telling me you took it from them? Using your jiu-jitsu?”
“Bokator. Had to. They would have come after me with it again.”
“What did you do with it?”
“Took it home.”
“Still have it.”
“Not on me.”
“But if I were to go to your apartment now, I’d find a baseball bat with blood and
brains all over it.”
“Didn’t hit them that hard. No brains. Blood yes.”
“What a night.”
“We got two murders now. Two girls who look very much alike. One dies in your arms
while you say you were trying to save her life. Her blood all over you. Only your word you
saw the murderer standing in a meadow. The other one gets bludgeoned to death with what
looks like a baseball bat and it so happens you have one of those, covered in blood, in your
apartment. And again you were the last person to see her alive.”
“Besides whoever killed her.”
“So you say.”
“I didn’t kill either one of them, Patton.”
He ignored me. “Will you give me written permission to search your apartment, or do
I need to get a court order.”
“If your guys won’t tear the place up. Sure. You’ll find the blood doesn’t match.”
“We’ll see about that. Yo, Gordon?” He motioned to one of his men across the room.
“Get a written statement from this guy. Find his place, and bring back anything you discover
there of possible importance. Especially a baseball bat.”
Gordon placed a piece of paper in front of me and had me fill it out. Address, phone,
permission granted, and so on. And left.
“Am I under arrest?”
“Not sure we can avoid it, Francis. You’re the only suspect we have. In both cases. And
in terms of evidence, we have plenty. You’re crawling with it. I bet if I ask you three more
questions, I’ll find something else that would incriminate you.”
“You can’t believe I murdered her.”
“Maybe yes. Maybe no. Doesn’t matter. I got a job to do. A judge and jury make the
decisions. I gather information and when there’s enough, off we go.”
“So what do I do now?”
“Sit and wait for Gordon to return.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“One thing’s for sure. I can’t believe you could make up such lame alibis.”
“I’ve got work to do. Shut up and let me do it.”
And I did. The room was busy. Surprising in such a small town on Christmas night. I
watched them work. Five people, plus those outside on the streets. Inside the station, there
were six desks in bad need of repair. The linoleum floor was filthy, even split in places. No
windows. We could have been in LA for all anyone would know. And the place stunk. Of
sweat, old decaying food, cold coffee, cigar smoke, and, worst of all, the strong smell of urine.
Probably from the cells in the rear and down the hall. I could only guess that. And could just
hope I wouldn’t be spending any time in there.
I was half asleep by the time Gordon returned with the baseball bat. He had it bagged
in clear plastic and the bloodstains could easily be seen.
“Take it down to the ME. He’s waiting for it,” Patton told him. “Tell him prints, blood
type, everything. And yesterday, not tomorrow.”
“Right.” Gordon. A man of few words.
At that point, Patton read me my Miranda Rights. I couldn’t believe it. But, given the
situation, I’d probably have done the same thing.
I told him I understood them and waived my right to see a lawyer. He argued with me
to make sure.
“Anything you say can and will be held against you in court. Understand that?”
“I’m innocent, Patton. I hope everything is used in court.”
“You ready to be recorded?”
He pulled an old Sony cassette deck from his drawer and checked the battery.
“You know you can do that on computers now?”
He turned the recorder on, gave our names, the date, the time, the place, and that this
was my official statement and had me agree to Miranda once again. And then we began the
whole thing over from square one. Everything except the number eleven. I saw no relevance
there. Only make me sound like a nutcase. The interview eventually took four cassettes and
about three hours in all, though it felt good to tell him the same story and having it down for
everyone to hear. I realized it didn’t make much sense. But, as Patton had said, it sounded too
silly to be concocted. Especially by a university professor.
When we finished, Patton rubbed his eyes, and asked me to follow him. For a mug
shot, prints, and the usual booking. I asked if I was going to spend the night in jail. He
answered in the affirmative. No judge would arraign me at this hour. Not on Christmas. And
so, before long, I found myself in cell number one. The only prisoner. Not even an O’Henry
guy to keep me company.
The cell looked and smelled every bit as bad as the station did. Actually worse. It had
three walls with a set of bars where a fourth should be. A single bed that looked at least
relatively clean. A basin against the back wall, and a toilet in the corner. No chairs. No
pictures on the walls. Just several thousand sets of initials and a few attempts at anatomical
porn dug into the walls by keys, fingernails, whatever those incarcerated had on them after
their arrest. They’d taken all my stuff and made me sign for it, so where these guys got their
ammo for the walls was beyond me.
I lay down on the bed and wondered what the university was going to think of me
now. Not the same kind of positive publicity a scientific publication would bring. I was sure
of that. Maybe I could convince them it had been civil disobedience. With some members of
the administration that might be considered a plus. If the cause was right.
After an hour or two, someone brought me dinner. Handed it to me through a special
door in the bars. As if they feared I might attack the man. Maybe my reputation had
preceded me. Bokator expert. Beware of the wild animal. The meal consisted of something
solid and something liquid. No idea what. Tasted like a confluence of somethings that hadn’t
any real form to start with. Calories. I ate what I could and pushed the rest aside.
Someone had written ‘Nietzsche is dead’ with a fingernail on the wall facing me. The
first line had been blotted out with a couple of badly drawn women’s breasts. The fact that
whoever had written the second line of the joke knew how to spell Nietzsche impressed me.
High-class jail. Maybe a philosophy student on a ‘drunk and disorderly.’
“Francis?” A familiar voice. Patton. Standing outside the bars with a guest I didn’t
“Patton,” I said. I tried to make my voice sound as dejected as possible. Maybe pity
“This is Joe Wise. The county public defender. He’s here to represent you tomorrow
I must have looked confused.
“I know you told me you didn’t want a lawyer. But this guy’s good. Won’t cost you a
penny. And you’d be nuts not to have someone represent you. You don’t know shit about the
law. If you don’t have a lawyer, God knows what your bail’s gonna be.”
That got my attention.
“Besides, he’s my brother. He’s bored. Give him a chance.”
I took a look at Joe.
“What? His brother? Yes.”
“Let me in and you’ll find out.”
“Okay,” I said. Beaten and ready to try anything.
Patton unlocked the door and let him in. Locked it again, as if we might both escape.
And left us alone.
Having no chair to sit on, only the toilet, he joined me on the bed.
“So,” he said, “tell me about this thing from the beginning.”
“The very beginning?”
“Yes. And don’t leave a single thing out.”
“Eleven,” I said.
Might as well give him the whole enchilada. He’d probably hear it from his brother
anyway. And there went my evening. To his credit, he sat on my bed and took careful notes,
asking questions in short bursts whenever he felt he needed more details.
When I’d finished, he took a deep breath.
“This is unbelievable,” he said.
“And you didn’t leave anything out?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“That’s why I didn’t want a lawyer. Not good to have someone represent you when
they don’t actually believe your story.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe your story. I just find it unbelievable.”
I stared at him for a second. Did he actually understand what he’d said? But he smiled
at me. I guess he had. Maybe he was wise after all.
“How much money have you got?”
“What? I thought you came free.”
“I do. Just answer my question.”
“No. In savings, investments, that kind of thing.”
“I don’t really know off hand. Maybe ten grand. Spread around.”
“Can you get your hands on it?”
“Okay, let’s make it eight grand. That should work.”
“What are you talking about?”
And he shook my hand and left. I watched him talking to his brother and then he
disappeared out the front door. Patton looked back at me and raised a thumb salute in my
direction. Like everything was all right. What a family.
I tried to sleep, but my something-something dinner kept arguing with my lower
intestines. Something in that something wasn’t happy down there. I did sleep finally. Bad
food, smell, jailed, and all. For how long I had no idea. When I woke, everything was the same
as when I’d laid down. No idea whether it was night or day. Just bright lights and people
typing, talking in acronyms, and no Patton. At least as far as I could see. I fell back to sleep
I had no idea what time it was when I woke up again. My eyes weren’t good enough to
see the hands on the clock on the wall, and they’d taken my watch along with everything else
I had on me to keep me from killing myself. Or somehow breaking out. But when the same
guy showed up at my cell and pushed something looking vaguely like breakfast through, I
figured morning had arrived. The something looked a little like eggs. Same color at least.
And the liquid was black. Maybe coffee. I tried both. Somewhat familiar sensations.
Afterward, I pooped for the first time on a toilet without a seat. Not just without a lid, mind
you. Without a seat. Quite a trick.
And I waited. And waited some more. Nietzsche was still dead. No major loss. I’d
never been one of his fans.
The first day of Christmas. A partridge in a pear tree. But who was my true love?
Wise eventually pushed his way through the low-hung swinging doors and made his
way back to my cell. Maybe some action finally.
“Holding up okay?” he asked.
“I’m alive. My disposition hasn’t improved, nor has my body odor. But basically I’m
“Good. Now when we get in there, let me handle everything. Keep your mouth shut
unless the judge or I ask you to speak. Got that.”
“I mean it. This is important. I know what I’m doing. Let me handle it.”
I nodded and kept my mouth shut.
It took awhile for the judge to see us. Wise told me that she would also act as the OR
clerk. He explained that OR stood for own recognizance. Whether I presented a risk to flee if
they let me go before the first hearing. She’d base it on my standing in the community and
the seriousness of my crime.
“I’m a professor,” I said as we followed Patton who’d come to take us to court.
“In your favor,” Wise told me.
“It’s a she?”
“The judge? Yeah. A she from hell we call her.”
When we arrived, we stood before the bench. All except Patton, that is. He sat in the
gallery. Two others I didn’t know stood next to me. On my left. Away from Wise.
The judge had white hair, a hawk nose, and was so skinny I feared she might blow
away. Even without a wind. When she spoke, however, she sounded quite capable.
“So Mister Wise,” she said, “who have we got here today?”
“Professor Will Francis, Your Honor.”
“Charged with two counts of murder, I see.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
Jesus, Wise. Can’t you do better than that?
“We don’t need a plea, though I suppose he’s innocent.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
We should have brought a recording for all the good he was doing me.
“District Attorney Mann. What brings you out so early the day after Christmas?”
We’re they kidding me. Wise Mann?
“Arguing for a proper bail, Your Honor.”
“Think it should be high, huh?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“At least fifty thousand, Your Honor.”
Fifty thousand? I’m a professor for Christ sake.
“Seems a little high to me,” the judge countered.
Mann kept his distance. Then, “Two murders, Your Honor.”
“I realize that. You think the proof justifies such a high bail?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“What do you say, Mister Wise?”
“Your Honor, my client is a reputable science professor at the university. He’s never
done anything wrong. He gave himself up. Even walked here in the snow at our request.
Nothing here suggests any bail necessary at all.”
She looked thoughtful for a minute, and glanced down at some papers. No doubt the
list of charges against me.
“Mister Francis. You have anything to add to this?”
I looked at Wise. He nodded.
“Your Honor, I had nothing to do with either crime.” I thought of adding something
but thought the better of it.
“What about the baseball bat?”
“A couple of guys came after me with it.”
“And you bested them?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“And took their bat away from them.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“And the first victim died in your arms?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“And you went out with the second one the night she was murdered?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“There’s a lot more than circumstantial evidence here, don’t you think?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. ‘Yes, Your Honor,’ would probably help the DA’s
She didn’t wait for an answer.
“How did all this begin, Mister Francis?”
I looked over at Wise. He smiled. I was doing okay.
“The number eleven, Your Honor.”
Wise kicked me on my right ankle. Not the right answer.
“The number eleven, Mister Francis? What does that mean?”
“Your Honor,” Wise tried to rescue me. “Shouldn’t we wait until the hearing for this
kind of testimony?”
“I’d like to hear what ‘eleven’ has to do with this. Bear with me, Mister Wise.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Your Honor, the day the first victim died I woke up with a strange feeling that the
number ‘eleven’ was extremely important. That’s when it all began.”
“And you think this has something to do with the two murders? A premonition?”
This was going nowhere. I should have kept my mouth shut.
“I’m not sure, Your Honor.”
“The number eleven.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Mister Wise, I’m going to set bail at eight thousand dollars at this time. And I’m
going to ask the court to provide your client with a free psychological profile from a court
appointed psychiatrist. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
And that was it. I’d walked right into it. But what? Eight thousand dollars? That was
the exact figure I told Wise I could raise. Was she his sister? Or more likely his mother?
Waiting outside the court doors was a bearded man with the words Bail Bondsman
stenciled on the front of his light gray sweater. With a form in hand. Filled out and waiting
for my signature.
“Out of our way, Craps,” Wise said.
“Wait, don’t I get to decide that?” I asked.
“Only after you see the shrink. Judge’s orders.”
He was right, of course, and we walked back to my cell away from home.
“When will that be?”
“They’re calling her now. Depends on her schedule.”
I shuffled inside the bars and the jailor turned the key. Not a pleasant sound. I found
my seat on the bed and waited. Why had I brought up eleven? Makes me sound crazy. But it
had begun that way. That morning assault on my brain. Everything seemed to originate at
Noon came. Or so I assumed, since lunch, or what passed for it, arrived. More
something solid, something liquid. Same as last night. Maybe different. I couldn’t tell. More
calories at least.
Sometime after that, the man with the key returned, opened my jail cell door, let me
out, and led me down a long hallway. We came to a door marked 127. On an opaque glass
“She’ll see you now.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Miss Davies. The shrink.”
“Thanks,” I said, and walked in. I should have knocked. Nothing embarrassing. She was
polishing her nails. Some bright red color. Although that’s not what got my attention.
Without question, she looked like Julia Robbins. And Dolly. Not exactly. But very similar.
How could this be? In a small town in North Dakota. Three people who looked so similar.
‘That’s nine?’ I thought. Or was I losing count?
“And you are Will Francis, I assume?”
“Yes. Sorry for not knocking.”
I was already in, but assumed she meant take a seat. I did.
I waited. She waited.
“You’re looking at me.”
“You look like someone I know. Actually, someones.”
“Forget it,” I said.
“Okay. Do you want to get started?”
“With the evaluation?”
For some reason I was uncomfortable. She seemed that way, too. Or was I imagining it?
Something about the eyes. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Maybe the judge was right. A
confirmation of sanity might be a good idea at this point.
“So, Judge Williams thinks there may be something amiss with you. Is there?”
“Amiss with me?”
“Yes. Not quite balanced.”
“To be frank, I don’t know.”
“A good sign.”
“A good sign?”
“Yes. Most off-balanced people think they’re fine. Most balanced people are never
“I’ve heard that.”
“So you could have said that because you’d heard it before?”
She wrote some things down in a spiral bound notebook on her desk.
“You’re staring at me again, Mister Francis.”
I wasn't used to being called ‘mister.’ Professor, yes, mister, no. I let it pass.
“Sorry. As I said, you look like someone I know.”
Yikes. How did we get here so fast?
“Just a woman.”
“I assumed that. What woman?”
Should I answer? We’d gotten here so fast I had no idea where to go with it.
“One of the murder victims.”
She wrote more down in her notebook. This was not going well. I could tell.
“So,” she said, “you’re telling me that I look like both of the women that you’re
charged with murdering?”
No way to answer that correctly. Yes, I lose. No, I lose. Or at least begin a cascade of
coincidences that would turn out that way.
“Yes. But I didn’t murder them.”
She stared me directly in the eyes. I stared back. She didn’t write anything down.
“What did you feel when the first girl, Julia, fell into your arms dying?”
“How to get her help. Actually not even that. I turned and called for the nearest
person I could see to help me. The snow was pretty deep. I sent the another one to call 911.”
She paused again. And wrote more down in her notebook.
“And the second girl?”
“The second girl I knew. Slightly. We’d gone to the movies together. When I found
out she was dead, I couldn’t believe it. Still don’t. This whole thing seems impossible. From
“Since we’re there, why not tell me about ‘eleven.’”
“I woke up one morning with the number in my head. I couldn’t get it out of my
brain. That’s when everything began to go south. For some reason, my instinct tells me
they’re all related in some way.”
“Eleven have any special meaning in your life?”
“Don’t know. Something happen when you were eleven years old? Do you have eleven
sisters? Those kinds of things.”
“I have zero sisters. Don’t remember anything I could pin it on.”
“What’s on your mind now?”
“I’d like to see it again. You know, see if it’s snowing out there. What time of day it is.
Maybe go shopping for some food and visit my apartment again. Play like everything’s
normal. At least until I can raise bail and pay the bondsmen back.”
“On my mind?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“And you’re sure I shouldn’t be worried.”
I let that question sink in for a minute.
“No, I think you should be worried.”
That startled her. Actually it startled me a bit.
“You do look like them. Probably a coincidence that they looked alike. But someone’s
out there. They think I know something. Apparently anyone fitting your general description
they interpret as a problem. If I were you, I’d get some police protection.”
She sat back in her swivel chair and gave it some thought.
“I shouldn’t be worried about you though?”
“Not about me. Except somehow this whole thing’s about me. I’m not causing it. I may
be the reason for it, indirectly, but I’m not causing it.”
“Do I have your word you won’t run if they release you?”
“You have my word that I won’t deliberately leave town.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I don’t know what’s happening. Not the least little bit. Someone might
decide to make me run. But I wouldn’t do it deliberately.”
“Okay. You can go.”
“Did I pass?”
“This wasn’t a test, Mister Francis. I was asked by the court to determine whether
you’d break bail and run. I think I have enough evidence to advise them now.”
“And what’s your advice going to be?”
“For that, Mister Francis, you’ll have to wait. Until I write our conversation down,
think about it, and let the court know. Then you’ll know.”
She smiled again. Faintly. And she stood and waited for me to leave.
I got up. Smiled back. And left. The guy, guard, whatever he was, had waited for me.
He took me back to my cell. As I walked, I noticed the bail bondsman waiting patiently by
the swinging doors. Vulture ready for road kill.
When dinner arrived, I figured I hadn’t passed the test. Apparently at risk to flee. She
thought I’d done it. Or at least that I feared being tossed to the wolves.
I ate and drank my somethings in a somber mood. Thinking about Julia and Dolly.
Two most likely innocent young women murdered before they’d had a chance to reach the
prime of their lives. For what? Something I knew but didn’t know?
Patton visited me once. To say hello, he said. I told him I’d thought his last name was
Patton. Now I knew it was his first. Patton Wise. Wrong, he told me. Step brothers. His last
name was Patton. Jim Patton. His brother Joe Wise and he had the same mother, different
fathers. I wondered out loud how I could have studied artificial intelligence for so long and
be so completely out of it. He wondered that, too.
Otherwise things remained quiet. That is, until Patton returned, this time with the
bail bondsman in tow. He told me I was sprung. Elated, I signed the forms, both promising
not to jump bail and for the bail itself at twenty-five percent interest compounded daily.
Meaning I had to pay the bondsman back within twenty-four hours or go broke.
I finally hit the street after dark. Clear sky. One of those nights when it seemed every
star in the universe shown brightly. No wind. Damn cold. Maybe in the teens. I still had my
coats and they’d been warmed in the station. And so had I. All the way back to my apartment.
By the time I got there, my paranoia had risen to a level that I watched every bush for
unexpected motion. Everything dead quiet. End of the day after Christmas.
I stood outside for a minute and watched for anything different. A light in my
window. A sign of someone waiting in the darkness in the apartment complex entryway.
Nothing. All quiet on the northern front.
I walked to my front door, and waited again to see if any premonition hit me. None
did. And I keyed myself inside, happy to get home again. Turned on the lights, half
expecting the cops to have left it a mess. But everything looked like I’d left it. Sans baseball
bat, of course.
I closed the door and stood there for a minute. Happy to be home. Unhappy because I
still felt vulnerable. Like something could happen any moment. But nothing did.
I wandered around the various rooms of my apartment to check for visitors. Still
nothing. I went to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. Poured myself a cup of Beam, drank
it, washed the glass, and sat down to make a shopping list. I could’ve gone out. Maybe to the
diner down the street if it was open. However, I didn’t want to visit Dolly’s place. Make things
worse. Much worse. I needed to get a steak and trimmings, and have myself a meal of
something other than jailhouse somethings.
After finishing my coffee and list, I put on my coats again, went out the door, locked
it, and headed into the long good night. I’d seen the corner market’s lights as I’d come home,
so I was pretty sure they were still open. By the time I hit the street, though, they’d gone
out. Closed for the night. Christmas to New Years hours, I guessed.
“Damn,” I cursed out loud. The only other place that might be open was six blocks
away. I didn’t own a car. Better to go inside and call them to see how late they’re open? Or
take a chance? I tossed it around in my mind. Warm tuna fish? Or T-bone, spuds, and a bowl of
I spit in the air. To see whether it froze or wet-landed in the street. It wet-landed in
the street. Not so cold. I braced myself and headed downtown for the other store. Hoping it
was still open. That I wouldn’t have to make this stupid walk for nothing.
Not more than ten steps into my walk, a car ambled up the street behind me. First
guess? They’d drop off twelve guys with swords and hack me to death. Enough with the small
“Will? That you?”
Jackson. How’d he guess? I had a virtual tent of coats encasing me. I guess I had a
certain way of walking.
“Jackson. You’re a Godsend.” He maneuvered his car over to the curb and pushed his
passenger side door open. The light went on, revealing his smiling face beckoning me inside.
I jumped in and closed the door.
“Where’re you off to this time of night?”
“Grocery store. The one downtown. I’m all out of everything. I hope it’s open.”
“That’s where I’m headed. Perfect timing. You should have called me. Been happy to
pick you up at your door and taken you there.”
“I’ve been a bit busy.”
“Yeah. Who with?”
“You don’t know?”
“I was arrested.”
“You what? Why?”
“Two murdered women.”
“This I gotta hear. When did that happen?”
And I told him about Dolly and the arrest the day before. Then we shopped. After that
we took everything to my apartment. And I told him the whole story again, in detail, while
we cooked a feast for two lonely men. Protean and carbs. But mostly liquor. Refined sugar
and enough chemicals to drop a horse. Before either of us knew it, we were completely
crocked and I let him use my couch. Night fell on me like a piano from a window on the
When I woke the next morning my head felt like a weather balloon filled with baseball
bats slamming bowling balls against the inside of my skull. I couldn’t think. Could barely see.
Worst hangover of my life so far as I could remember. I staggered to the bathroom, thankful
my toilet had a seat, and proceeded to lose about ten pounds. In about a minute and a half.
I wandered into the kitchen. Thank God I hadn’t unplugged the coffee machine. I
poured myself four separate cups and drank them one after the other. Then back to the
bathroom. A virtual waste disposal unit. In one end. Out the other.
I stood in the shower. Hot first, followed by cold. Then hot again. Anything to stop
the bass drums banging in my head. I vowed several times to never drink again. Anything.
Ever. Even water.
When my pulse slowed to two hundred beats per minute, and my head felt like a head
again, I dried myself, got dressed and made breakfast. A bowl of oatmeal. That wouldn’t make
me sick. Not oatmeal.
Second day of Christmas. My true love gave to me two turtle doves. Love and
kindness? Apparently not.
Somewhere in there, I remembered Jackson. On the couch in the living room. I’d made
enough noise to wake him, since I’d forgotten he was there. Apparently he’d forgotten too,
because he wasn’t there. No sign of him. Except for the extra dishes. I couldn’t have eaten all
that by myself. I hadn’t imagined him. Not like ‘eleven.’ He’d probably gotten up before me,
had less of a hangover, and left me alone to sleep it off. Probably.
I cleaned up the place. At least sort of. I moved all the dishes into the sink and
dribbled some water over them, hoping the stink would go away. And praying that by the
time I got my finances in order, the bacteria growing in my kitchen wouldn’t take over the
I called a guy I knew at First National on the other side of town, and told him I
needed eight thousand dollars as soon as possible. Could he back-loan me that much while I
assembled it from my various investments? This was a rather big order, since I didn’t bank at
First National. But he agreed, and told me to come see him that afternoon after one. I
thanked him several times and laid back and closed my eyes.
What a hell of a couple weeks. I couldn’t remember whether it was actually two weeks.
Probably longer. What date had it been when it started? I thought back to waking up that
first day. To holding a dead girl in my arms. Or at least mostly dead. I didn’t know exactly
when it had happened. I had a secretary dismiss my class. The last class before the final exam.
That would have been . . . December 11. Two weeks before Christmas. Four days after Pearl
Harbor Day. The eleventh of December. Was that it? Had I just remembered the date? Was
that all there was? Peggy Lee sang that. Is that all there is?
I walked over to my calendar and checked to make sure. Wrong. It hadn’t been the
eleventh. The third. No cigar. Three weeks before Christmas. Forget it. Good guess. Good
thinking. Not it.
Depressed, I found my previous position on the couch and tried to sleep. First thing I
knew, a phone was blaring in my ear. The landline.
I picked it up in self-defense.
“Will.” My guy at First National. What time was it anyway? Five o’clock by my watch.
“God, I’m sorry. I fell asleep.”
“Still need the check today?”
“Absolutely. I’ll take the bus and be there as quickly as I can.”
“I won’t be here. Quitting time. Maybe I can bring it to you. Where do you live?”
“Here’s an idea. Drive downtown and meet me at the bail bondsman next to the police
“Long story. I’ll explain it later. Is that too far out of your way?”
“Nope. Actually I live not too far from there. See you in a few.”
And we hung up. I shoved myself into my coats again and headed out the door. Made
sure to lock it. And began my trek up the street, something I was becoming quite used to at
The sky had clouded up. Another front coming in. I hoped it could wait until I’d paid
off the bondsman and got home again.
When I arrived downtown, my friend was waiting for me with check in hand. The
bondsman, of course, was open for business. Twenty-four seven. Even in a small university
“Someday you’ll have to explain all this to me,” he said.
“I will. Just not now. I’ve got to pay this guy off or I’ll lose my shirt.”
“Why the hurry?”
“What are you charging me for interest?”
“Four percent a year.”
“He’s got me at twenty-five percent compounded daily.”
He looked like he didn’t believe me. I thanked him and sent him home to his wife and
kids. I took the check and went in and gave it to the bondsman. An unhappy man. His interest
didn’t begin to accrue until the first twenty-four hours passed. Imagine his look when I’d
beat the deadline. I signed off on the check and tore up our agreement. What a relief. Now all
I had to do was pay off my friend at the bank, and wait until the court sought fit to find me
innocent and return the money, or sent me to the chair. Either way, things would work out.
As I walked out of the bondsman’s office, I actually felt good. Plenty of sleep. Squared
with the police for the time being. Maybe things were looking up.
I decided to look in on Patton, so I went next door.
“You should try sleeping once in a while,” I told him as he worked at his desk. “Give
you a more even disposition.”
“What brings you here, Francis? Kill someone else?”
“No. I’m worried about your psychiatrist.”
“That her name?”
“Yes. Cassie Davies.”
“Did she ask you to have her tailed today?”
“No, why should she?”
“I told her she looked enough like Julia and Dolly that now being associated with me
might put her in danger.”
“She tell you that you were nuts?”
“I’m out on bail.”
“You think there’s something to it?”
“Don’t know anything you don’t. Though I’d hate to not have her covered given my
warning. I’d do it if I were you.”
He dialed his phone and barked a couple of orders into it.
“Okay. Done. I hope you’re wrong. Either way, we’ll have a man on it. You know, ever
since that day I met you, you’ve been nothing but trouble. What’s with you anyway?”
“Wish I knew.”
Satisfied I’d done my duty, I headed for the street and home. By now the first few
flakes of the white stuff had begun falling. Definitely a front passing through. Winter in the
Dakotas can be hell, I thought. Godforsaken place. Why did I love it so much?
I made it home around ten, poured myself a whisky, and watched a few old movies
until I fell asleep. This time on the couch around three in the morning.
In my dream, someone was chopping wood. For no damn reason I could think of. And
it went on and on and on. I had to do something to stop it. But the dream’s visual part
wouldn’t function. So I woke up. Someone was knocking at my door. Hard, fast, and
unceasingly. Not waiting for me to answer.
I looked at my watch. Four-thirty. A watch with hands, so I couldn’t tell afternoon
from early morning. I’d either slept for an hour and a half or for thirteen and a half hours. I
doubted the latter. I got off the couch and went to the door. The knocking continued. I didn’t
have a peephole so I couldn’t tell who it was. What the hell. I opened it.
Jackson nearly fell into the room as the door pushed away from his pounding fist.
“Christ, Will, what took you so long?”
“Sleeping, Jackson. You know that ugly habit we all have of closing our eyes and
getting rest. Usually between the hours of midnight and maybe seven in the morning. By the
darkness outside, I suspect it’s during those hours right about now.”
“Shut up, will you, and let me in!”
I did. And closed the door. Cold out there. Lots of new snow.
“What’s going on, Jackson? You look frazzled.”
“Someone’s broken into my place. Trashed almost everything in there.”
“What? While you were there?”
“No, stupid, while I was out.”
“You were out this late?”
“No. What would I be doing out this late? This happened earlier in the evening.”
“And you’re coming to see me now?”
“Shut up and listen. I’ve been with the cops all evening. Going through my place.
Looking for signs of who might have done it. They left and I came over here.”
“Need a place to sleep. Plus, I thought two might be better than one.”
“You didn’t want to stay home alone?”
“Actually no, I wouldn’t. Damn. Any idea who might have done it?”
“None. It’s crazy. They weren’t looking for anything. But destroyed nearly everything
I had in there. My computers, television, everything.”
“And took nothing?”
“Not that I can find. That’s the strange part.”
I got a couple of beers out of the case in the kitchen and gave him one.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Not your fault.”
“Maybe it was. Could be part of this mess I’m in. The murders.”
“How could it be?”
“Everybody who knows me is affected by this malaise. I’m beginning to feel like Pig-
Pen in Peanuts. A cloud surrounding me everywhere I go. Not only snowing on me, but on
everyone associated with me.”
He took a long drink from his can. “I can’t see that. I don’t know any reason why
someone would go after me.”
“Neither did Julia. Or Dolly. See what that got them.”
He took another long drink. So did I.
“Still,” he said, leaving the word hanging in the air.
“Feel free to spend as much time as you need here,” I said. “Sounds like it’ll be some
time before things get cleaned up at your place.”
“That’s just it, though. I’m going to have to clean it up myself.”
“Can’t you get professionals? You have insurance don’t you?”
“Sure. But they can’t separate the wheat from the chafe. I’m going to have to sift
through everything to make sure anything salvageable is saved.”
Two more long drinks of beer.
“You can sleep here the rest of the night.”
“Rest of what night? I’m too wired to sleep.”
We decided to clean the dishes I’d left in the sink. Maybe get our minds off both our
problems. Maybe. I washed. He dried. And we both looked out the kitchen window at the
blowing snow, now clearly the worst storm of the year. At four thirty in the morning.
Nothing but white stuff blowing against the pane and the howling winds. At least we got the
dishes into the cupboards and the kitchen looking somewhat presentable.
‘Was that ten?’ I thought. If it was, things were going to end pretty quickly. If it
wasn’t ten, then I’d lost count. What a mess.
I made a pot of coffee. The good stuff. Ground the beans myself. A once a month
ordeal. But the smell filled my entire apartment. Full of good cheer. Such as we could muster.
Back in the living room, now closing in on five in the morning, we sat in silence. I
hoped the electricity wouldn’t go out. The wind sounded dangerous. Thank God for gas
heating. No fireplace. Up shit creek without the heaters.
“Let’s talk about something different,” Jackson said.
“Tell me what you do.”
“I teach, Jackson. You know that.”
“Sure. But what do you teach?”
“Tell me about that.”
“Good God, you don’t want to hear about pattern matching, relational databases, and
all that. I don’t want to hear about that. At least not at this hour.”
“Okay, how about your research?”
“I’d rather hear about yours.”
“No you wouldn’t. Mine’s full of strange acronyms and impossible to pronounce names
of mental illnesses.”
“So’s mine. Well, not mental illesses.”
“At least yours is newer than mine.”
“Yes. Had less time to grow tentacles. You’re more on the forefront of things.”
“I suppose. What do you want to know?”
“Not sure I want to know anything. Just want to talk about something other than the
state of my house right now.”
“Okay. Where do you want me to begin?”
“Jesus, Francis, anywhere. The beginning, I suppose. As good a place as any.”
So I did. I told him about the origins of artificial life studies, or A-Life as it’s called. A
few call it AL. Friendlier. Like a tired old uncle with his feet up in front of the stove. And a
pipe. I smiled at the image.
“In essence, we’re essentially talking about a computer-oriented field where scientists
try to understand life by modeling it.”
“Using computer graphics, I imagine.”
“Sometimes. Mostly to get grants. Only quick and accurate computations are
“What does computer life look like?”
“Snowflakes, terrains, dull things, complex things. Mostly a lot of garbage that
eventually becomes ordered. Self-organizing structures. That kind of thing.”
“And what’re you doing these days?”
“More like my graduate students doing it. I give them problems. They solve them.
Neat arrangement.” Or not. Thinking back to my previous meeting with the group.
“Could whoever’s doing this be after something related to your lab?”
“Hardly. We’ve pretty much gotten nowhere. And my grants will end after this school
year. Hard to find new ones when you’ve failed with the old ones. Bleak outlook. Besides, I
thought we weren’t going to talk about ‘whoever.’”
“You’re right. Forget I said that. Tell me more about exactly what you’re doing.”
“Twofold, really. First we’re trying to define life.”
“Hasn’t someone already done that?”
“In your dreams. Actually, everyone has defined it. Although no one can agree. We’re
trying. Rather I’m trying for a bulletproof definition. So we can get on with things. Sort of
like ‘intelligence.’ Nobody has a definition that everyone can agree on either. Hard to study
these fields. I think we know what the artificial part means. It’s the second words of AI and
AL that present the problems.”
“We psychologists skipped that part. Went right on studying our subjects assuming
everyone knew what the basic terms meant.”
“It’ll probably catch up to us sooner or later. Or maybe it’s so we can pin our subjects
down to organs and roughly quantifiable empirical data.”
I got us two new beers. Now it was five thirty. Just filling the time with words.
“So, you try to create life in a machine. Whatever life is?”
“Right. Began with von Neumann who had the idea that we could create life-like
creatures that acted much the same as simple life by using relatively straightforward rules.
Like Conway’s Game of Life. He came later. A two-dimensional grid that acts as an automaton
that can produce some life-like beings that mover around and seem to procreate. Langton,
Lindenmayer, Kaufmann, Holland, and many others followed, each adding their own
“Hold it,” he said. “You’re inundating me with names here.”
“See. Told you so.”
“Yeah. Though I’m more interested in what you’re doing now. Not the history.”
“Okay. I’ve formulated an axiomatic definition of life, and my crew and I are busy,
mostly they’re busy trying to use those rules to create life forms in computers.”
“Whoa. Life forms? You’re not telling me you’re playing God are you?”
“No. Maybe ‘create life forms’ is too strong. We’re modeling life from chaotic soup.”
He took a long drank from his near empty can.
“We set up promising non-linear mathematical equations and hope for the best. Run
the machines as fast as we can and at certain points, when some kind of order emerges, we
test that order to see if it fulfills our definition of life.”
“A shot in the dark.”
“Somewhat. Though we’ve limited our scope to a few types of equations that have
shown possibilities in the past.”
“Nothing so far.”
“In this business there is no promising. Get something that looks that way and it only
proves how far from our goals we’ve come.”
“What happens if you succeed?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead. Maybe someone will recognize our success. Maybe
not. The field is still controversial. Most mainstream scientists are quite skeptical. We’re
controversial, Jackson. Even after all these years on the cutting edge.”
I noticed I’d become excited. I’d forgotten my problems. Maybe I should return to the
lab and bury myself there. And hope all the rest of this crap would go away in the meantime.
Will Francis, ostrich extraordinaire.
We talked for a few more minutes and then Jackson fell asleep sitting up. Just as the
first sign of light appeared in my kitchen window. Dawn, I presumed. The third day after
Christmas. Three French Hens. Faith, hope, and love. What a trio.
I poured myself a cup of coffee. Drank it. And considered my next move. I decided to
visit the lab. To see if my students were actually working or simply playing hooky. I bundled
up and braved the morning air. Jackson could fend for himself if he woke during my absence.
Icicles hung everywhere. Especially from the hibernating tree limbs. The snow was at
least three feet deep. Heavy stuff. Enough to support my weight. So it was relatively easy
trekking. For a moment or two I thought I could feel a rifle targeting my back as I walked.
Ready to put an end to my misery. No such luck. And again I realized that for some reason,
aside from a couple of attempts to beat the crap out of me, I seemed invulnerable from the
As I walked up the sidewalk to the science building, I couldn’t help but remember
once again that fateful day, however long ago it had been, when a young girl fell mortally
wounded into my arms, changing my life forever. And hers. I saw a telltale dim light in my
lab upstairs, even under the cloud-shrouded sun of the snowy day and the early hour. I
climbed the steps and into the foyer, immediately feeling the warmth. A great feeling.
Especially in North Dakota in December.
When I opened the door to the lab, I found two of my grad students working away at
computer monitors. Both assumed, I guess, that I was a third member of the group and
neither bothered to look up.
I cleared my throat. That got their attention.
“Doctor F.?” one of them said, somewhat surprised by my presence in what was
generally considered sanctified territory. The invader cometh.
“Where are the rest of you?”
“Taking a break,” the other one said. So nonchalantly it sounded truthful.
“Mind if I kibitz?”
“Not at all. Maybe you can help.”
I did. Kibitz, that is. Not sure I helped much.
“Nothing but strange attractors?”
“Mostly. Just groups of repeating patterns after a burst of chaotic behavior.”
“It’s a start. Keep at it.”
“Fruitless. Weeks and weeks. No matter what primordial soup we try, random or
premeditated, same old, same old.”
“Maybe we should up the ante. Spike the brew to help it along.”
“Been there. Done that. Same results.”
My other researcher was having the same problem.
“We’re still at square one. Must be another way to do this.”
I thought so, too. No matter what we tried, we’d ended up dead in the water. Up to a
certain point, promising results. And then nothing. All the theories had gone down the
digital toilet. One by one. Now that we had criteria to judge the things by, nothing came
close. Yet we knew it was there. Life. At least virtual life in a virtual test tube. So close. Yet so
“We could change the environment again.”
“Sure, but to what? An infinity of possibilities.”
I made some comment about patience. Lacking any conviction. And left the lab and
down the stairs. Maybe a walk in the storm would help me come up with something. No such
The snow had stacked up to four feet against the front door outside and the wind was
flinging it through the thin cracks in the doorframe into the foyer. Got cold just watching it.
I forced myself through it eventually and made my way, bent into the wind, as fast as
possible toward home. Maybe Jackson could give me a hint. At least I hadn’t been thinking
about Julia or Dolly.
Jackson was up when I arrived. Roaming around like a caged chimpanzee.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“At the lab. Our conversation got me thinking.”
“No. Still stuck. How about you?”
“Same. Zip. Nada. Nothing makes any sense. Who’d want to trash the house of a
college psychologist? My files are locked in my office at school. I don’t use my computers for
anything professional like you do. Nothing slightly confidential or useful to anyone but me.”
“A former patient?”
“They’re either institutionalized or rehabilitated. Can’t think of one.”
“You call the police? See if they discovered anything? Prints? That kind of thing?”
“No. I’ll give them time for that. They seem preoccupied with your thing.”
“Between the two of us, we appear to have all the action in town.”
I fixed an early lunch from leftovers. Wasn’t much. Except calories make the
difference in weather like this. We ate in silence.
The phone rang. I hated the thing. Even when awake, the annoying bell made my
head ache. I picked up.
“Patton. Can you come down here?”
“To the station?”
“No. Disneyland. What do you think?”
I ignored his sarcasm. “Why?”
“Just come down, will you?”
“Okay. A few minutes.”
I hung up on him. I think I was one ahead now.
“Patton?” Jackson asked.
“Yeah. Wants me to come down to the station.”
“Need some company?”
“No. I think he probably wants to check my whereabouts when your house was being
ransacked. Thinks I may be branching out. From murder to mayhem.”
“Want me to drive you down?”
“You kidding? Have you seen it out there? You’re not driving anywhere. Hip deep
snow. They haven’t cleared the roads yet. When they do, you won’t be able to get out of the
“I could walk with you.”
“Stay here. Answer the phone if it rings. Ponder your patients. I still think this has
something to do with you not me.”
He nodded, and fell back onto the couch.
I found Patton right where I’d left him. Maybe he slept there. I’d never heard of a
wife, kids, or a girl friend. Only his brother, the public defender. Who’d gotten me off for the
amount I’d told him I could raise.
“I’m here,” I told him. Like a schoolboy reporting to the principal’s office.
“Have a seat.” And he pointed to the one chair opposite him.
“I suppose you heard about Jackson’s place.”
“He tell you?”
“He did. We’re friends. Kind of.”
“Closest thing I can call a friend on campus. We talk every once in awhile. Maybe he’s
my unofficial councilor. Whatever.”
“What’d he say?”
“That his house had been ransacked. Nothing taken. Just everything smashed to
pieces. Not very happy about it.”
“You know anything?”
“Just what he told me.”
“You don’t know who might have done it?”
“Jesus, Patton. I may not be a perfect citizen of your fair town, but I’m not responsible
for every stinking illegal thing that goes on around here. No. I don’t know a thing about it.”
“Where were you when it happened?”
“Probably drinking myself into a stupor. Actually I don’t exactly know when it
happened, so I couldn’t really tell you.”
He mused on that for a minute.
While he was thinking, I changed the subject.
“Have you been keeping watch on the county psychiatrist?”
“What business is it of yours?”
“I’m the guy who suggested it. Remember?” I nearly yelled at him.
He put his hands up in an ‘I surrender’ move.
“She’s fine. Nobody’s tried to hassle her. No suspicious characters around her place.”
“Glad to hear it. Anything else?”
“No. Thanks for coming down.”
He smiled glumly. Such things were possible for him.
“Couldn’t we have done this over the phone?” I asked.
He glared at me.
I nodded and returned to the less windy, still white day outside. Cold. In the teens for
sure. The icicles still hung from the trees. None were dripping. Frozen like brittle swords
ready to fall on the first victim that had the lack of brains to walk under them.
As I walked home, I thought about my life. What was left of it. I had no idea what the
university bureaucracy would do to me when school resumed. I had tenure. Innocent until
proven guilty. Enrollment was down and times were lean. Time to cut a program and lose a
faculty member in the process? Hard to know.
I couldn’t sit still while the cops held a secret investigation. I knew that Wise, being
Patton’s brother, would eventually get the full scoop and let me know. But it was too early
for that. Not even my first hearing date set. I had to do something. What?
As I turned up my walkway, or rather the approximate location where my walkway
would have been if I could see it, I heard a snowplow off in the distance making a valiant
attempt to clear some of the muck away. I hoped it wouldn’t come this way any too soon.
What was four feet deep would become eight feet on my sidewalk in no time. Streets clean,
yes. Getting to the street an altogether different story.
I found Jackson watching an old black and white movie on television. “You gotta see
this, Will. An old Thin Man movie. You know, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Great stuff.”
“The first, I think. A hoot.”
“I’ve got a few things to do first,” I told him. And I grabbed the phone, unplugged it,
went into my bedroom, plugged it in there, and put it down. Who to call? Not many choices. I
didn’t know many people. Afraid to call Wise. As soon as he knew anything, Patton would
know. Jackson didn’t know anything. Besides he was right here.
I laid back on my bed, rumpled sheets and all, and gave it some thought. Julia Robbins.
What did I know about her? Not a student. Friend of Melissa. One dead. The other alive. That’s
about it. Not a lot. Enough to go on? No. Couldn’t call Julia anyway.
How about Doris? Knew Robbins? Not dead. Linked? Related? I leafed through the
phone book. How do you look up someone if you only know a first name? Answer? You don’t.
Unless there was only one Doris in town. There were fourteen.
I powered up my Mac. Used Google. Same problem. Zillions of women named Doris.
No last name. No nada.
I went to my kitchen and retrieved the past three weeks of newspapers. Not a lot to
consider, given it was a weekly and this was downtime for the university. A story on Julia
Robbins. Nothing on Dolly. But something on a woman named Doris who’d been murdered.
Huh? Same problem with Patton about the names.
I read the article. No other names. Unidentified sources only. Even Patton’s name
wasn’t there. Only that a Doris Thurman had been murdered outside her apartment by some
unidentified person or persons wielding what the police thought might be a baseball bat. I
had somehow got the two names mixed up. Or they had put the wrong nametags on that day?
One of them was now dead.
I looked Doris Thurman up in the phone book. I felt like a private detective. Too bad I
didn’t have a license. I could have been charging somebody a fee.
I found a listing. Actually I found two listings for a Doris Thurman. Same number.
Same address. They’d duplicated the entry for some reason. Didn’t surprise me. Nothing
surprised me at this point.
I dialed the number and listened to it ring. A lot softer when you’re on this end, I
thought. Nobody picked up. No answering machine. I let it ring about twenty times and put
the receiver down on my lap. Nothing was going right.
“Hello?” I heard a voice at great distance. The movie Jackson was watching? Then I
realized it was coming from the phone I’d failed to put back in its cradle.
“Hello?” I said.
“Who is this?”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Don’t. Please. This is Will Francis, a professor at the university. Are you Doris
“Because I’m calling Doris Thurman. I need to talk to her.”
“I’m her. What do you want?”
“Do you work at the diner on Main Street?”
“And you knew another waitress there.”
Pause. Cautious now. “Yes? What do you want?”
“Do you remember me? I’m Doctor F. that eats at the diner occasionally.”
More pause. Very uncertain.
“Sure. I remember.”
“And I asked out the other waitress and she got killed?”
Longer pause. Ready to hang up? Actually I wouldn’t have blamed her. Lot of that
going around these days.
“I’d like to talk with you. If you’d be willing.”
“For one. Wasn’t the woman you worked with named Dolly?”
“Do you know her last name?”
Not this again.
“What was it?”
“Actually her name’s Doris, too.”
“You’re sisters with the same first name?”
“Half-sisters. Just happened that way. She used the name Dolly to stop all the
Hence the double listing in the phone book.
“She didn’t change it officially?”
I’d forgotten about Doris. A little slow on the uptake.
“On the record. With the Census Bureau, income tax forms, driver’s license, and so on.”
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
“Okay. Listen. I know it’s been awhile, but I wonder if we could talk. Not long. We
could do it at the diner if you prefer.”
“I don’t know. What about?”
“Anything more you could tell me about Dolly. Things you might remember about
her that you could share with me.”
“The police already asked me about that.”
“I know. Though they’re not sharing any information with me or the public. I’d like to
know about the murders. Dolly was killed after she and I had a date. Don’t you think I deserve
to know more than nothing?”
Long pause. Trying to crunch the numbers.
“Maybe for a minute or two. The diner would be okay.”
“When do you work next?”
“Tonight. From six to midnight.”
“When’s it least busy?”
“After nine thirty or so. Though it’s been empty because of the storm and school
“I’ll be there around nine thirty. And thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
She had to think that through. She managed an ‘okay’ before she hung up.
When I joined Jackson in the living room again, he was watching another old movie,
The Flying Tigers with John Wayne and company. A colorized version.
“You know that’s a black and white film that’s been computer enhanced for color don’t
“Thought it looked a little fake,” he said. “Hey you’re smiling. What’s wrong?”
“You never smiled before. Least not that I could tell.”
“I took your advice.”
“A first for everything. What advice was that?”
“I got a date.”
“Do tell. With whom?”
“Who’s that? A grad student of yours?”
“No. She works at the diner down the street.”
“Not the Doris?”
“The one who worked with Dolly?”
“How’d you know about that?”
“You told me, idiot.”
“Yes then, the Doris.”
“I thought Patton told you not to meddle in his investigation.”
“Who told you that?”
“You did. What’s going on with your memory these days?”
“Other things on my mind.”
“What are you up to, Francis?”
“Trying to find out something for myself. After all, I’m facing murder charges. Two of
them. I deserve to know at least a little about what’s going on.”
He looked skeptically at me, shrugged, and returned to his movie.
I, on the other hand, got a beer and returned to my bedroom. Maybe make some more
progress. After all, I had four hours before my date.
But what kind of progress? I couldn’t call the dead girls. I’d already ruled out Wise. I’d
talked recently with Patton. And Doris. Jackson was in the next room. My students were
probably still in the lab. Nothing there. District Attorney Mann, no. Nor Judge Williams.
Especially not her. I could talk to myself. Then it struck me. Why not the court psychiatrist?
If nothing else, maybe she could prescribe some good pharmaceuticals. Couldn’t hurt. Of
course, the cop tailing her would undoubtedly call Patton if I tried to see her. So that was out.
I could call her. But about what? She probably knew a lot less than I did. Maybe for some
advice? She’d probably charge me. I had to have something about the case to ask her. What?
I thought through what we’d talked about when I last saw her. My sanity. Or lack
thereof. Then I got it. A way in at least. I’d ask her if she were all right. That I was worried
about her. That I’d told Patton to have someone watching her place. All true. Though
probably a stretch for her to believe. What the hell.
I looked her up in the book. Cassie Davies. Feeling lucky. Two numbers. Work and
home. Where would she be this late in the afternoon? On a day where the snow stood half a
body high. In the week between Christmas and New Years. Home. I dialed the number. It
“Yes,” she said cautiously.
“Is Cassie Davies there?” I asked.
“Doctor Davies. Yes, I am she.”
I am she?
“Doctor, this is Will Francis. You may remember we had a conversation a couple of
days ago at the police station. About my getting bail.”
“I do.” More caution.
“I’m calling to make sure you’re all right.”
“And why shouldn’t I be?”
Not going the way I’d hoped.
“Remember we talked about the similarity in looks between you and the two women
I’m accused of killing?”
“Well. I’m calling to make sure nothing’s happened to you.”
“I’m fine.” Tentative.
“I saw Patton not long after we talked, and told him to have someone watch your
place. I hope he did.”
“If he said he would, then he did. I haven’t seen anyone. That’s the way it should be,
though, don’t you think?”
“Yes.” What did I think she would tell me anyway? This was quickly going to hell in a
“If you have a second, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. Would that be alright?”
“If I can answer them.”
“Do you have any ideas on how I might go about figuring out why the number eleven
seems to mean so much to me? Suddenly. Out of the blue.”
Silence. But I thought it a good question given I’d had nothing prepared.
“You might try saying it out loud several times. Like a mantra. See if when you say it
some words come to you that might follow it naturally.”
Not a bad idea.
“Never thought of that. I’ll do it.”
“Could you tell me what possible motive anyone would have for murdering two
women who happen to look alike?”
“Mister Francis. I appreciate your wish to know more about your situation. In fact, I
hope you find what you’re looking for. However, you should call my private practice and set
up an appointment. I’d be happy to see you professionally. I don’t diagnose by phone.”
In other words, screw you.
“I understand. Sorry for intruding. Thanks for answering my question.”
“Sure,” she said, and hung up on me. I’d lost track on how often that had happened
I set the phone back in its cradle and lay back on my bed. Good try, Will, I told myself.
Not much there except the mantra. I tried it. Said ‘eleven’ out loud several times, seeing if
any words followed it naturally. Or preceded it for that matter. No luck.
I rejoined Jackson in the living room. He’d fallen asleep. In the middle of a fierce
battle on an island in the South Pacific with all the colors off a little bit. I turned off the TV.
Six thirty. Still three hours before seeing Doris at the Diner. What to do? Detect some more?
I left a little early and caught a beautiful view of a sliver of moon in the western sky.
The storm had passed, the wind moved on, and whatever warm air had accumulated during
the day had disappeared completely. Dead quiet. Nothing moving. The snow removal
equipment hadn’t reached us, and I could no longer hear it in the distance. Ran out of salt,
gas, or both. Main Street was still closed to traffic and I could walk anywhere I wanted. On top
of the snow, that is.
The diner’s lights glowed brightly, the only ones I could see in either direction. The
place looked deserted. Of course, no cars anywhere gave me a clue.
They had dug out a portion of the front steps so, after climbing down off the
mountain of ice and snow I could actually open the door. When I did, the difference in
pressure that formed between the two opposing temperatures popped, and I didn’t walk in so
much as sucked myself there. The place was completely empty. Except for Doris, of course.
Standing by the counter. Looking like she was preparing for an inquest. Deathly pale.
I took a table and nodded in her direction. She came over and sat down across from
me. I smiled. Tried to make her feel comfortable. Nothing doing.
“Doris. All I want to do is check some things. Okay?”
“You’ve told me that Dolly was your sister. Right?”
“Half-sister. Or once removed. I can’t get that stuff straight.”
“Okay. And you also told me that she had the same name as you. Doris. Right?”
“And so you both had the same first name. And you took your stepfather’s last name.
So you were both Doris Thurman.”
“Why didn’t you keep your birth father’s last name? Then you’d have different last
names. Rather than make her change her first name.”
“I hated my father. He was a drunk and beat up my mom.”
“That’s terrible. So you didn’t want to keep his name.”
“Were you close to Dolly?”
“Yes and no.”
“Yes and no?”
“She was my half sister. I had to love her. And I worked with her here. But we weren’t
that close actually.”
“Understood. Did you notice the resemblance between Dolly and Julia Robbins?”
“Never met Julia Robbins.”
“See her picture in the papers?”
“But she’s not related to you? Or to your half-sister?”
“I don’t know. I suppose she could be.”
“Well, as you say, they looked so much alike. And I don’t know much about my
stepfather’s life before he married my mother.”
I gave that some thought. Was this getting me someplace? Other than more confused?
“Do you have any other relatives by your stepfather? Any other half-sisters,
stepsisters, cousins, or anything?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Good question. I’m not a murderer, Doris. I’ve met someone else that looks like Dolly
and Julia. Just wondering if she might be related to you. She’s not going to be in any danger.
You trust me, don’t you?”
“Then can you tell me if you have any other relatives on your stepfather’s side that
might look like Dolly? And, I guess, Julia. If she were a relative?”
“Yes you can tell me, or yes you have another one?”
“Yes to both.”
Like pulling teeth.
“Can I ask you who?”
“Meaning you won’t tell me.”
“Yes, you won’t tell me?”
“Okay, how about this? If I ask you about someone, could you nod yes or no about
whether their related or not?”
She smiled. A game. She apparently liked games.
“Okay. I met someone the other day at the police station. Would this person be a
psychiatrist by any chance?”
“By the name of Cassie Davies?”
“Yes.” No more nods.
“And Cassie is what relation?”
“Can you tell me why she has a different last name?”
“Yes. She was married once. Got divorced. She kept the name.”
“You’re doing fine, Doris. Now, is there anything else you can tell me about Cassie,
Dolly, or Julia that I don’t know?”
“Like, were any of them involved with unusual people?”
“No they weren’t, or no you can’t tell me.” Better safe than sorry.
“They weren’t involved with any unusual people.”
“Good. Now, do you know any reason why someone would want to murder Dolly? Or,
for that matter, Julia? Any reason whatsoever?”
She began to cry softly.
“Forget that. Is your stepfather still living?”
“And your mother?”
“What do they do?”
“They own this diner. And a couple others.”
“So, if I looked up your parents in the phone book I’d find them there?”
“Anything else you can tell me about this whole thing?”
She thought seriously for a minute. She stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth,
like a twelve year old might. Took some energy.
“Can I come back if I have other questions?”
She thought about that.
And she left me alone at my table. Like hanging up the phone. A surprise. But not a
I made my way out of the diner. The streets had been cleared while I’d been inside
with Doris. So I had to climb a mountain of the stuff to get to the street. I did, and then began
walking, giving some thought to what she’d told me. Made sense they all looked alike. But
why kill at least one, possibly two members of the same extended family in such horrible
ways? Happenstance? And the changing of names. I had cleared up some of my confusions
while tormenting others. I needed to speak with the parents. The grieving parents. Having
possibly lost two members of their family. In the same small university town in North
Dakota. For no reason I could think of.
When I arrived back at the apartment, the lights were off. Had Jackson wandered
away? Bedded down for the night? I approached my door with some caution. Had someone
broken in and killed him? Was he related to Dolly, Doris, and Julia? Had someone beaten my
apartment to a pulp as well? All good questions. And good enough to make me wary.
I opened my front door slowly. The first thing I noticed was the smell of gas. Not
intense, but clearly present. Then I noticed that the inside temperature had fallen
dramatically. Not as low as outside, though clearly unheated. I wondered whether I should
turn on the lights. Would they ignite the gas and blow me and my home to hell and gone?
But I didn’t really have a choice. Gas or no gas, I couldn’t see well enough to find the source
of the gas and turn it off. And then there was Jackson. He could be dying in here.
I closed the front door behind me and flipped the switch. The room looked almost
exactly as I’d left it. The TV was off. Jackson lay on the couch looking pale. And the smell of
gas was all pervasive. I ran to the kitchen. All the burner knobs were on full, even though
none were burning. I quickly turned them off. But that couldn’t be all. I still heard a faint
hissing from the living room. I ran there and found two of the heater gas lines detached from
their metal housings. I rejoined them as quickly and as tightly as I could, and turned up the
thermostat as high as I could get it. I heard the burners ignite. Without blowing me to hell.
I checked Jackson on the couch. Still breathing. Though not steadily. I ran to the
bedroom where I’d used the phone that afternoon and dialed 911. Gave the operator my name,
address, problem, and ordered her to get an ambulance and the police here as soon as
possible. She seemed on top of it.
After piling some coats over Jackson, I rubbed his face and hands with mine to keep
his blood flowing. I had no idea whether the gas or the cold posed the most problem. But he
didn’t appear close to death. At least as far as I could tell. I prayed the professionals would
get here quickly.
Was this meant for me? If I had counted right, this was eleven. The fateful number.
Had they not checked to see who it was on the couch? Or didn’t they know what I looked like?
Would this convince the cops I was innocent? I considered these thoughts as the cops and
ambulance pulled up in front of my place almost simultaneously. Thank God the snowplows
had finally cleared the streets.
The paramedics arrived first and I pointed them toward the couch. They opened their
cases and worked on Jackson, all the while asking me what the problem was. I filled them in as
quickly as I could.
Then Patton arrived. He pulled me off to one side. “We’ve got to stop meeting like
this,” he said. “What’s it this time?”
I told him how I’d found the place. How Jackson was staying with me during the time
his house was being watched for any return visits from whomever had torn it apart. I left out
where I’d been. That would come soon enough.
He consulted with the paramedics who’d already put Jackson on a stretcher and
prepared to take him to the ambulance. And on to the hospital. Worse than I’d imagined. The
open again front door didn’t help the heat much, and everyone had kept their winter clothes
and hats on. Only a sheet covered Jackson.
Patton eventually returned and told me the paramedics were taking him to
emergency as a precaution. He’d be fine. That I’d arrived in time. A few minutes longer and
he might have bought the farm. They left Patton and me alone. And, thankfully shut the door
behind them so the place could return to a bearable temperature.
“Where were you when this happened?”
“Down the street. At the diner.”
“Dinner alone. Without Jackson?”
“He was watching an old movie on TV. I didn’t think anything like this would
“Trouble seems to follow you around, doesn’t it?”
“Seems so,” I answered.
“Happen to run into Doris at the diner?”
No reason to lie. He’d learn about our conversation soon enough anyway.
“Yes. We talked a bit.”
“Her family tree.”
“Just curious. How could there be so many look-a-likes in this town.”
“She clear it up for you?”
“I told you to leave this up to me.”
“You told me not to cut and run.”
“I’m a citizen of this town, county, state, and country, Patton. I have a right to ask
questions of anyone I want to, regardless of what you order me not to do.” I surprised myself
with the forcefulness of my reply.
He grunted and gave me the evil eye.
“Anything else she tell you?”
We stared at each other. Both on the same side, I guessed, though not happily so.
“You want to follow me to the hospital and we can get down to sworn statements and
“That’s a ways out of town. Don’t have a car. Can't imagine the buses are running.
Guarantee me a ride back?”
“You can ride back with Jackson. I don’t think he’ll be there long. We’ll provide a man
for the job.”
And we took a ride together. In a cop cruiser. With the lights blazing above us. Red,
white, and blue. Running like propellers on an old prop job. Or helicopter blades.
It took us half an hour to go three miles north from my apartment. The road had been
plowed and salted, but the late evening wind had blown some of the snow back onto the road
and into dunes sometimes two feet high. We zigged and zagged our way slowly over the
sometimes icy blacktop. At least Patton’s car had good heating.
By the time we arrived, Jackson was standing up at the check-in counter and being
handed his belongings. Patton sat him down with me and for the next hour or so we
corroborated one another’s stories and gave him the particulars. Apparently Jackson had
fallen asleep. Someone must have quietly entered my place and adjusted the gas outlets.
Patton told us that with no actual harm done to he or me, the apartment, or anyone else, it
became less of a problem. Just attempted murder, I reminded him. He glared at me some
more. I could never tell whether he was with or against me. Probably what made him a good
As promised, a detective drove us back to my apartment. Came in to check on things.
Then he planted one of his minions outside our door for the night, an assignment I didn’t
find fair for the cop, but didn’t disagree with, and by midnight we were both up to our
eyeballs in beer and pretzels. And old movies on TV. I pushed a few full cans out to the cop
guarding us, which he promptly rejected because he was on duty, though neglected to
Bright and early the next morning, I built a breakfast of steak and eggs for Jackson
and me. Maybe the eggs had been laid by the four calling birds from the fourth day of
Christmas. Who knew?
“What’s the occasion?” he asked, the first non-inebriated words he’d spoken since
before I’d found him sprawled out on the couch suffocating and freezing to death.
“We’re both alive.”
Outside through the kitchen window, the sun had risen into a blue sky and apparently
windless winter day. From what I could see over the piles of plowed snow, the streets were
still empty. Chimneystacks spewed dark smoke everywhere. A world waking up after a
blizzard in North Dakota. Nothing like it. Great stuff.
“Any idea who might have done this?” I asked him.
“None. Except maybe a flunked student I underestimated.”
“Kind of a drastic reaction, don’t you think?”
Not much else to say. We cleaned up the dishes like an old married couple, and he
retired back to the TV. I took the phone back into my bedroom. Damned if I was going to
waste my time watching golden oldies when there was work to be done. Places to go.
I looked up Thurman in the phone book. For a small town, they took up quite a bit of
real estate, even in the white pages. I realized I’d forgotten to get the parent’s first names
from Doris so I woke up my computer and searched for the oldest folks of that name in our
town. Came up with Norma and Gene. Sounded familiar somehow, though I couldn’t place it.
I matched the names to the phone book and dialed their number. I had no idea what
I’d say, but having done well so far, why break a winning hand?
“Hello?” A warm and friendly older woman’s voice.
“Hello. May I speak to Gene Thurman, please?”
“Just a minute.”
I heard her muffle the phone slightly with her hand and following that, “Gene? Phone
From a great distance, “Who is it?” Male voice.
“Could I tell him who’s calling please?”
“It’s Will Francis. Professor Francis from the university.”
Again with the muffle. “It’s a Professor Francis from the university.”
A pause. Then, “Hang up on him, Norma. He’s the guy out on bail for killing our girls.”
A rustle of clothes. After that, a dial tone.
So much for that.
I set the phone back in its cradle and almost slipped off the bed when it rang again.
I grabbed it quickly before it could ring again.
“Hello,” I asked. Tentatively. Half expecting Norma to be calling me back to
“Didn’t you tell me you spent the time when Jackson was getting asphyxiated with
Doris at the diner last night?”
“Just called her. She said she made a date to talk with you, but you never showed up.”
“What?” I tried to regroup. Why would she lie?
“Your alibi stinks,” he said.
“I did see her. She told me about her relatives. The family. Why the girls resemble one
another. Two fathers and all that.”
“Why would she lie?” he asked.
“I have no idea. Though I swear I was with her.”
“Doesn’t cut it, Francis. Be glad that nothing actually happened to Jackson, or I’d have
your butt back in that cell immediately. And slap an attempted murder charge on your
ticket. Not that after two actual ones it would make much difference.”
“I tell you, I spent a least a half hour down there with her. She told me about Cassie.
The whole bit.”
“Being part of the clan.”
“The Thurman clan. What else?”
“Now you’re losing me.”
“You have to believe me.” A tired old line. Though what else did I have?
He hung up on me. What a day. Another one. Was that twelve? Had my strange
incidents outnumbered my first day premonition?
I needed to make one more call.
“Doctor Davies’ office,” the secretary answered.
“I’d like to make an appointment.”
What else? I figured I could at least determine what was happening in my brain. Even
if she refused to talk to me about the case, I could use a good psychoanalysis. Or whatever
passed for one these days.
The secretary gave me an hour at one that afternoon. Perfect. Gave me time to clean
up, talk to Jackson, and have lunch. And, of course, think about what I was going to say to her.
Predict what questions she might ask. Probably a dead-end on both counts, though worth a
I arrived ten minutes early and, though it was lunch hour, the secretary let me sit in
the warm outer office as she ate her lunch. With chopsticks no less. Since we didn’t have any
Asian restaurants in town, and she didn’t look Asian, it left me wondering what was in that
bowl she was eating. And why the sticks? In North Dakota yet.
While waiting, I filled out a form she gave me for new patients. I checked the box for
her to bill me. Time to change professions. A hundred bucks an hour.
When the secretary eventually showed me into the doctor’s office, she wasn’t there. I
must have looked confused.
“She’ll be right with you, Professor. Have a seat. And thank you for your patience.” A
singsong voice. Routinized to the point of being annoying.
The doctor arrived within a minute or two wearing a blue business suit and looking
otherwise much as she did when I’d last seen her. At the police station.
“Professor Francis,” she said, and extended her hand. I took it gently and said “Doctor
She sat down behind her completely cleared off desk, showing only a new spiral bound
notebook opened to the first blank page. After all, I was paying her one hundred dollars an
hour. Worth at least a new notebook.
“And what can I do for you today?” Not as annoying as the flat tone of the secretary,
but damn near.
“Trying to discover a few things about myself. Thought you could help.” From her
perspective, probably equally as drab and predictable.
“I hope so. How shall we start?”
So far, so boring.
“I’m trying to determine what’s going on in my life. You remember what I told you
when we last met?”
“Well, things have been going more or less the same. Either I’m imagining a lot of
things, or someone’s out to set me up for something. I can’t figure out which.”
“Maybe some of both?”
That caught me short. I thought psychiatrists were supposed to ask simple questions,
not give opinions. Whatever.
“I’m hoping you’ll be able to tell me,” I said.
“Where shall we begin?”
“At the beginning?”
“Logical.” She didn’t crack a smile.
“I woke up the day it all began with the number ‘eleven’ on my mind. More than that,
actually. It was like an obsession. Demanding that I recognize it in some way.”
“Have you recognized it?”
“Did you try what I suggested on the phone?”
“Nothing came to mind. Goose egg.”
“A big round zero.”
“Okay. Tell me again. Don't leave anything out.”
And so I did. The light in my eyes. Something feeling wrong. And the number itself.
Pervading my mind and thoughts, without any obvious meaning.
“What did you do then?”
“Searched my place. Found nothing unusual. And tried to forget it. Went to school.
Had a class at eleven.”
“Yeah. I thought about that, too. But it was the end of the semester. Last day of classes.
Just reviewing for the final exam. Nothing special about it.”
“Except that on the way a young woman called out for help and died in my arms.”
“At eleven o’clock?”
“No. Maybe fifteen minutes before that. I always arrive early for class.”
“That, and then some.”
“Did you teach class that day?”
“No. Had to spend some time telling my story to the cops. Took most of the rest of
“You mean did I predict the future in my dreams?”
“Would you imagine that possible?”
“No. Don't believe in such nonsense. Besides, other than my class starting at eleven
and me missing it, nothing I woke up feeling predicted anything that happened following
that. Hardly makes any sense, even if I did believe in it.”
She spent the next minute quietly writing in her tablet.
“Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”
“Not even in general?”
“You mean have I ever woken up with something on my mind?”
“I always wake up with something on my mind.”
“I mean something as indelible as this.”
“I don’t remember anything like this. Especially not anything leading to murder.”
She wrote some more things down. Took some time.
“I just can’t seem to get over it.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“No. Not that. How much you look like Julia and Dolly.”
“Dolly was my step sister. Julia my cousin.”
Ah. The truth shall out.
“How do you know?”
“Doris told me last night.” Not completely true, but close enough.
“Doris told you?”
“Yeah. I saw her at the diner. She was a bit reluctant, though she finally admitted you
four were related, however indirectly.”
“She told you that?”
“I didn’t realize it was a secret.”
“It wasn’t. Isn’t. It’s that we don’t talk about it much.”
She suddenly looked disheveled. I was asking the questions now. She wasn’t in the
habit of responding to her patient’s questions.
She cleared her throat once. Politely.
“Doris lied to the police about her meeting with me last night,” I said. “Told them we
didn’t talk. Why would you suppose that is?”
“Does this mean you think we’re involved in this?”
“How could you not be? Your cousin murdered almost in my presence. Your half-
sister murdered right after I had a date with her. Your father hanging up the phone on me
“Yes. Gene Thurman. He had your mother, or stepmother, hung up on me. He
wouldn’t even talk to me on the phone.”
“I didn’t know anything about that.”
“Does it surprise you?”
“Doris yes. My father? I guess he knows about your arrest for the murders. I suppose I
wouldn’t blame him for thinking you were about to harass him. Wanted to avoid it.”
“But why would he avoid me? Wouldn’t you think he’d want to find out why I did it if
he thinks I did? Or at least something about who I am?”
She faked a cough. I’d turned the tables again. Not five minutes into our session and I
was analyzing her.
“What do you think?” she asked. Good turnaround.
“I think you’ve got some family issues. Where did your mother’s first husband go?
Were you his daughter or Gene’s?”
Now she flushed. I’d gone too far.
“I hardly think that’s any or your business.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “However, I’m kind of on the hot spot here. I’m out on
bail for two horrendous crimes I didn’t commit. Facing life in prison or the death penalty.
Your half-sister lies about my seeing her last night. Your father, if he is your father, won’t
talk to me. And you’re not helping at all.”
Silence. Colder than it was outside. I’d definitely gone too far.
“And someone tried to kill my closest friend last night. Know anything about that?”
Why not, I figured. All she could do was throw me out. Save me a hundred bucks.
“Professor Francis. I’m not used to being spoken to in this way.”
“I’m not speaking rudely. Just conversing. Isn’t that what we’re here for today?”
“Yes. But I’m supposed to be finding out your truth, not the other way around.”
Ah. Out in the open.
She stared at me. And then stared some more. Followed by a smile. A slight one. I
“I saw that.”
“You saw what.”
“You smiled. Not much. But I caught it.”
“You are a bugger. You know that?”
“I am and I do,” I said. “I’ve tried to change. It just won’t work. I’ve always been one.
My mother used to call me that. Bugger. It’s why I’ve ended up in North Dakota. But I fooled
them. I like it here.”
She smiled again.
“What?” I asked her.
“I like it here, too.”
“Jesus, Francis, you won’t quit, will you?”
“Call me Will.”
We both stopped and took a breath. I liked her. Not just for her looks, but because
down beneath a thin veneer, she was quite human. And probably warm, too.
“Can we start over again?” she asked.
“Put down our gloves, you mean?”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“Then you’re off the clock. No charge. Let’s talk for the rest of the hour. Okay?”
“Definitely fine with me. I spent everything I had on my bail. Wasn’t sure where I was
going to come up with the hundred bucks anyway.”
She smiled again. A lovely smile. Cute, and not quite innocent.
“Who starts?” I said.
“Okay. I’m innocent. Some guys have been out to beat the shit out of me. At least
when it wasn’t snowing so damn hard. I did manage to hit a couple of them with their own
baseball bat. Someone tried to kill my friend Jackson with gas. I did see Doris last night,
contrary to her denial. A while back, I spent a night in jail. You know about that. And I
haven’t a clue what’s going on. And I’m single. Your turn.”
I thought she might burst out laughing, but she held her composure. Sort of.
“I have an advanced degree in psychiatry from the University of Texas, practice here
in North Dakota, sometimes work for the court when called upon, and I’m single, too.”
“Good. Now who goes first?”
“Trying to figure out what’s going on?”
“I went first the last time.”
“So you did.”
She didn’t follow up with anything. My turn anyway? Apparently so.
“Okay. Let’s forget about eleven. That’s a non-starter. Let’s begin with who might
want to kill two young women that look like you and are relatives of yours and for what
reason. That apparently has something to do with me, though I don’t know how. You knew
both of them. Maybe if you told me about them, we could go from there.”
“Since we’re throwing the book away anyway?”
“Dolly’s easy. Dumb as a church mouse. Never done anything to anybody. She’s dated
a few times, but as pretty as she was, I think the worst of her boyfriends couldn’t take
advantage of her. She worked at the diner and pretty much kept to herself. You must know
some of that. You went out with her.”
“I did. And you’re right. That’s pretty much how I’d describe her. Simple. Nice to the
core. No threat to anyone. Whoever killed her didn’t have a human bone in his body. Or else
had no choice.”
“No choice? How could that be?”
“Don’t know. But they’re not trying to kill me. Beat the shit out of me? Kidnap me?
Yes. Murder me? No. She was somehow a thorn in their sides. Maybe she knew something she
shouldn’t have. Maybe they had to kill her. Especially when she went out with me. She
could’ve easily spilled the beans and not known she was doing it.”
Cassie shook her head back and forth.
“That’s the trouble. Everything you said fits Dolly to a tee.”
“What about Julia?”
“You tell me,” she said, “you’re batting a thousand so far.”
“Not the same thing. I didn’t know Julia. Just held her in my arms as she was dying. I’d
say she was a lot more like you. Smart. Maybe too smart. She knew too much, and things were
getting tough. She didn’t like it. Maybe she was on her way to tell me, and they shot her in
the back to stop her.”
Cassie stared at me some more. I liked it.
“Right again. Though I don't know about the last part.”
“I don’t either, actually. Just guessing.”
“What about Doris?”
“She’s got me stumped. Must be in on something, too. Someone got to her after I
talked with her. Told her to say what she told Patton. That I hadn’t been there. Make it appear
as if I was a liar.”
She looked at me and nodded slightly. “Makes sense, too.”
I was beginning to like her. A lot.
“My turn what?”
“To tell me what you know.”
“I don’t know anything more than what you’ve just told me.”
“Yes you do.”
“Start with your family. Ever been into anything on the illegal side?”
“Good God, no.”
“Your father then. Let’s start with him. The first one. He your birth father?”
She looked like she was going to turn on me. How dare I ask her such personal
questions? Then she shrugged and gave up.
“Yes. I don't know much about him actually. He left us when I was about ten. Seemed
like an idiot. Don’t know why my mother married him.”
“Then Doris is you real sister.”
“Yes. And Dolly my step sister.”
“Did your real father beat your mother?”
“Not that I remember. Why?”
“Doris told me he did.”
“Doris said that?”
“She did. She your older or younger sister.”
“Maybe she remembers stuff you don’t.”
“Possibly. She was his favorite, too. Around him more often.”
“Do you believe that?”
“He beat your mother?”
“Then Doris is a liar.”
She thought for a minute.
“Means that she lied to Patton just because she could.”
“Rather than being forced to.”
“Where’s your real father now? What’s he do?”
“Don’t know. When he ran away, he ran away. I haven’t heard a word about him since
he left. It’s like he never existed. Never mentioned him as we grew up. Our new father is
great. Wonderful man. I can’t imagine him hanging up on you this morning.”
“He didn’t. He asked your mother to. She did it.”
“How about Julia?” I asked.
“Never knew much about her. She lived down south somewhere. I saw her maybe once
every five years. And mostly at reunions. Lots of people. Too many to carry on any kind of
private conversation. She’d be there a few minutes and leave. Too far removed from our
family to really discuss much of anything.”
“So she’s not really a blood relative of yours or Dolly’s.”
“No reason except fate for her to look so much like you two.”
That caught her attention.
“I guess not.”
“Thinking you may not have all the answers yourself?”
She looked back at me in much the same way she had when she’d first entered the
room. Professional. From a long distance.
“I’m sorry. Pressing too much. None of my business.”
“I understand, though. You’re under the gun. Both figuratively and literally. You
need answers. No matter what occurs as a result.”
Now I felt distant. Professional.
“Why me, do you suppose?”
“Why me? I mean, why would anyone be interested in a small town professor in North
Dakota? I haven’t done anything remarkable. Until a couple of weeks ago, I knew nothing
about your family. I vaguely remember seeing Doris at the diner when I frequented there.
Other than that, nothing. I don’t know anything that anyone could want. If I did, I’d be happy
to share it with them. I’m a professor for God’s sake. Unless we have patents, which I don’t, or
some kind of business secrets, which I don’t, we specialize in writing papers that tell
everyone everything they’d ever want to know. Probably more than they’d want to know.
Just go on the Internet and find it there. No trick to it.”
She screwed up her nose in the way some people do when thinking hard and not
“You told me once you thought they might be after you for something you knew but
didn’t know you knew.”
“Maybe I had something there.”
“Maybe you did.”
“How about dinner tonight?”
She shook her head to break her train of thought.
“You know. A date? Good food. Friendly chat. Nothing more.”
“Other plans?” I asked.
“No, I guess not.”
“Around seven. We could meet there.”
“None that I know of.”
“Then how about the steakhouse downtown instead?”
“Around seven?” she asked.
“Meet you there.”
“You’re not going to pick me up?”
“Don’t have a car. But, come to think of it, I can borrow one. Where do you live?”
She told me. Our hour was up.
When I got back to my apartment, Jackson’s car was gone and so was Jackson. Damn.
Four in the afternoon. Three hours left before my date. Where’d the bastard go? Just when I
needed him. Or at least his car.
Still a little gun shy from my earlier experience, I approached my apartment door
with caution. Cop was gone. Some of the snow had melted, and had now turned to ice. So I
had to dig in my heels to get traction on sidewalk level. When I reached my door, I listened
carefully for telltale signs that I wasn’t alone. I heard voices. Not loud. Strangely interspersed
with music. Jackson had left the television on. Or someone else was watching TV in my
To hell with it. I grabbed the doorknob and tried to turn it. Locked. Good. I found my
key and opened the door. Nothing seemed awry. The TV was on with no one watching. And a
note lay on the table by the couch.
“Will. Had to go out for a minute. Back before six, Jackson.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. Not that Jackson was okay. But that I’d still have his car for
my date with Cassie. Not that I wasn’t concerned about other things. Just that priorities were
I took a long hot shower. Relaxed for a while. Had a beer. No Jackson. What to do? I
could reach her house on foot if I started walking now. But what then? Walk to the restaurant?
A great first date. I needed Jackson to bring his car back. I wished my cell phone worked. But
he probably didn’t have a one anyway. Many didn’t around here.
I decided to wait. I could always call a taxi. I didn’t have much cash, but I had credit
cards. This was the twenty-first century after all.
So I turned off the TV and planted myself on the couch and waited. I had an hour and
a half. Surely he’d be back by then. His note told me so.
I mused over what had happened during my meeting with Cassie that afternoon. We’d
pretty well settled the fact that her family was a mess. However, something still bothered me
about it. Something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Just like eleven. One of
those things the harder you try to figure out, the worse it gets.
Then it struck me. Not eleven. Cassie. Actually about everyone in her family. No one
I’d talked to about Julia or Dolly appeared emotionally bent out of shape over their loss. Even
Dolly hadn’t been sad when I talked to her about Julia. Cassie had taken it in stride. Gene
Thurman had registered the most reaction and I hadn’t spoken to him. What was that all
about? How could a family, no matter the distance of their relationships, be so calm in the
light of two of their brethren murdered? In close proximity? Didn’t make any sense. What was
worse, why hadn’t I noticed it before this? Because they acted so normal? And because I was
so desperate for information, that I hadn’t given a damn either way?
I couldn’t get any of this out of my mind. I’d spent an hour that afternoon talking
with Cassie whose sister and cousin had both been brutally murdered. And she hadn’t
registered the slightest regret over it. Of course, she was a practicing psychiatrist. Maybe
she’d trained herself not to show emotions. Was that all there was to it? But what about Dolly?
What about Doris? Who’d seemed dulled to the point of being a mannequin? Jesus, what’s with
As I thought these thoughts, Jackson came bounding in the front door. Bounding.
“Jackson! You’re back. That was a long minute.”
“Figurative, Will. What’s it matter anyway? You my mother now?”
“No. I’ve got another date. I need your car to pick her up.”
I looked at the clock. “A half hour from now.”
“No big deal then.”
“You came bounding in the door.”
“So to speak.”
“I feel pretty good,” he said.
“Do I need a reason?”
“No. But you were pretty messed up the last time I saw you. After all, someone tried
to murder you last night.”
“Feel better now.”
“Just got a note that one of my papers was accepted. Another first.”
“Another first? I thought you had plenty of papers published.”
“I do. However, this is the journal. Top in my field. Who’s the date?”
“Cassie Thurman. Why?”
“Thurman! The ice bucket?”
“You know her?”
“What do I do for a living, Will?”
“And she is?”
“I got it. Why is she an ice bucket?”
“Won’t go out with anyone.”
“Right. How’d you make it happen?”
“Don’t know. Made an appointment with her. One thing led to another.”
“That’s two in two weeks, Francis. A record for you.”
“I don't see you out and about these days much.”
“What just happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“I came in bounding here, right?”
“Right. Out and about.”
That settled that, and he sat down in front of the TV again.
“It’s not on, Jackson. You getting obsessed?”
“Not as much as you.”
“Julia lookalikes. Are you going out with one woman tonight, or three?”
Jesus. I didn’t want to hear that.
“Let me have your keys before I forget the date and give you a brief lesson in
“I surrender.” He tossed me his keys.
I left my apartment early figuring better that than late. The drive across town was
messy. Some of the puddles of melting snow had iced over. Some hadn’t. Hard to tell which
from which in the glare of the headlights. About ten miles an hour when confident. About
five miles an hour when not.
Wonderfully clear night. The crescent moon, still near the horizon, had grown a bit
since I’d seen it last. What day was it? Oh yeah, still four calling birds. The fourth day of
Christmas. The four gospels. Matthew, John, Luke, and . . . I’d forgotten. Oh yeah, Mark.
Whatever. Not my cup of tea. At least not anymore.
I arrived at Cassie’s place about ten minutes ahead of time, and decided to wait. I kept
the engine running and the heater going as the little slice of moon slowly disappeared over
the western horizon. No storms in sight. Around me the chimneys pumped their winter
smoke into the air, bright little firefly sparks jumping from it occasionally and dying in the
cold night air. Here and there I could see Christmas trees in various windows, with their
lights blinking and tinsel sparkling. Memories of my childhood came to mind.
When I looked down at my watch, I was now late. My motto, get there early and wait
until you’re late. Worked okay with classes. Doubt it worked so well on dates. But it had been
so long since I’d had a traditional dinner out with a woman, I had no idea how it was done.
Cassie came to the door looking like an angel that had been turned by the devil. Like
she’d been rehearsing for days. Getting dressed since noon. Even the lighting looked
prepared. Backlighting her semi-translucent dress revealing her body inside. All of the one-
liners from pulp fiction came to mind.
“Holy crap,” I said aloud. Not the kind of thing I should have said, though out it came
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Come in. I’ll just be a minute.” And she turned toward a hallway behind her. Her dress
short and neat. Her legs long and right. She looked good in blue. Actually she looked great in
I closed the door behind me. Ashamed of my pathetic outburst and unprofessorial
thoughts. She was beautiful, and certainly not a bucket of ice. Though she had yet to prove
that. I decided to breathe again. Just to stay alive. Seemed like the right thing to do.
Her house was neat and tidy. Everything with a place and a place for everything.
How was I going to make it through dinner? It wasn’t only the enticement thing. She
made me feel like I was in high school again. Watching the girls at the dance. From a
distance. In love with every one of them. Afraid to go near any. Unlike every other boy in
the place, I wasn’t trying to get my hands on them, just trying to imagine how I could ever
bring myself to even talk to one of them.
She returned with her purse and her blue dress buried in a few hundred overcoats.
This was North Dakota after all. And winter. She put on her hat, and I wondered if I’d ever be
able to find her in all of that.
We found our way to the car. I ushered her inside, and with a little coaxing got the
engine started and off we went. Slowly. For the streets, a nightmare in daylight, had become
truly treacherous after dark. No matter how much salt had been laid, ice formed and caused
slide outs. Even with Jackson’s snow tires, it was slow going.
I found it easier to talk to her in the dark and knowing she was covered with inches of
“Whose car?” she asked.
“Yeah. I gather you two have met.”
“About what he said about you.”
“That you’ve met.”
“He didn’t tell you that he asked me out?”
“I guess that came up.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing much. I guess you turned him down.”
“He’s an ass grabber.”
“You know. The kind of guy who takes liberties.”
Jesus. Don’t women know anything about guys? What I would have given to do just
that. But I hadn’t. Maybe that’s the point.
“Never knew that.”
“You wouldn’t. You’re a guy.”
“Glad you noticed.”
I could literally hear her smiling.
When we arrived at the steakhouse, my worse fears were confirmed. A line outside,
and me not having made reservations. Suave, Will. First date, and you screw it up. I took a
chance, parked the car like I knew what I was doing, and accompanied the bundle of clothes
I’d brought along to the front of the restaurant. No one there.
“Must have been a group reservation,” I said. Wasn’t sure she’d heard me under all that
softwear, so I let it drift away into the night.
Once inside, we stood for a while waiting for the maitre de to arrive. Of course he
asked if we had reservations. Why I had no idea. The people in the line had all taken their
seats at a large table in the back of the place, with no one else in the restaurant. But he did
ask, and I told him no. He said no matter, and asked which table we’d like. I turned to Cassie.
She preferred the one in the far corner nearest the large fireplace. Looked good to me.
Private and warm.
We stopped before we got there and removed our outer garments. Hats, coats, boots,
and so on. It took her awhile, but when she’d finished it had been worth the wait. And my
high school jumpy stomach returned. She was one hell of a woman. Gorgeous in every way.
And let me count the ways.
“Over here, please,” the maitre de said, and led us to our table. In the corner by the hot
crackling fireplace, with real wood, not gas. Thank you very much.
And we sat down. On opposite sides of the table so we could see each other. Yikes. Try
as I might, I couldn’t avert my eyes from her décolletage. Not that her dress was particularly
revealing. It wasn’t. But it had buttons down the front. And the first one was not attached.
The rest were. And they went all the way down to her waist. Jesus.
“Eaten here before?” she asked.
I gathered my thoughts.
“No. Though it’s supposed to be good.” Not bad, Will, keep it up. No pun intended.
“Best in town. Of course, that’s not saying much given that there are only five places
to eat in town. And two of those are on campus and closed.”
“And stink,” I added.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” she said. “Though now that you mention it.”
And we kept the banter going throughout ordering and until the meal arrived. Prime
rib for all, and to all a good night.
We’d ordered a red wine with our meal, some sort of merlot. I didn’t know didly about
wines so she ordered. Too sweet for a beer drinker. But what the hell.
Then, out of the blue, she said, “My ex-husband couldn’t stand wine. He always drank
beer. Had a pot belly to prove it.”
I could feel myself automatically pull in my abdominal muscles. I had no idea why. She
couldn’t see below the table.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“For a living?”
“A psychiatrist. Just like me. No. I take that back. Not just like me. He was a Freudian. I
should’ve taken that as a bad sign immediately.”
I knew nothing about psychology. I knew about brains. Which part did what. Not the
details of behavior. AI didn’t cover that. At least the area of AI in which I worked.
“How did you two meet?” I asked her.
“At a conference. Where else? They say those things are baby factories.”
“You know. Meet, marry, and poof you have kids.”
“Did you have kids?”
“No, thank God. That would have been a disaster. We were only married a couple of
years. He was on his way up the ladder and I was happy where I was. Here.”
“Up the ladder?”
“Books, tours, conferences, signings. That sort of thing.”
“Did he make it?”
“Not that I know of. We didn’t separate on good terms. Haven’t been in contact with
him for years. But I haven’t seen his name in the right places. My guess? Not.”
“Make you happy he hasn’t made it?”
“Doesn’t matter either way. He has his life. I have mine. I’ve more of less crossed those
two years off my lifeline. Experience. Not much else.”
Harsh words coming from such a beautiful woman.
“How about you?” she asked.
“Ever date?” She smiled as she said it.
“No. Never met the right girl. I’m pretty well entrenched in my research right now.
Though you could never tell it given my lack of working on it lately.”
“To be expected, given what you’ve been through.”
“I suppose. But I don't seem that interested in it these days.”
“Not going well?”
“No. But that’s not it. When it doesn’t go well, I generally get going. Though not this
time for some reason.”
“Too bad. It’ll change.”
“How do you know?”
“I have a certain feeling about you, Will.”
Yikes. That came out of the blue. A certain feeling about me. And my first name yet.
Both in the same sentence. Thank God the waiter came by and asked if we wanted dessert. I
looked at her. She me. And I think we said yes. At least a peak at the menu.
While we waited, she asked me, “So when did you become a computer scientist?”
“As a kid. Liked the whole idea of codes. From simple cereal code rings, to deciphering
puzzles in books. Mensa stuff. Not that good at it, but found it fun. At least it didn’t
“Weren’t computers around then?”
“Sure, though mostly mainframes. I tinkered a bit with integrated circuits, soldering
and stuff. Mostly I used pencil and paper. Until grad school. After that I had a field day with
programming languages. I learned as many of them as I could. Codes. Like eating peanuts. I
couldn’t get enough.”
“And what’s your specialty now?”
“Artificial life. A-Life.”
“Well I know what the words mean. Though not in context.”
“I try to build digital life.”
“You don’t mean for real, do you?”
“I’ll leave that to philosophers. We define what life is and attempt to make it happen
in a non-carbon environment.”
“In a digital world. All the same basic fundamental aspects of life. Just confined to a
“Who knows? Consider computer viruses. They do plenty of damage. They spread and
sort of live.”
“Not actually alive though.”
“No. But many biologists don’t think carbon-based viruses are alive either. However,
taking the general principles in terms of digital information, they could be made to act like
life. Though not the same kind of life we’re familiar with.”
“And you’ve defined life?”
“I’ve made a few attempts at it. Hard to know if any of them are right or complete
enough. We have a working set of laws or principles we use.”
“Really want to know?”
“Maybe a general version.”
“Well, let’s say our digital versions do a lot of things simple life does. Procreate, eat,
excrete, and evolve over time. Those kinds of things.”
“Do they learn?”
“Yes and no. Remember we’re beginning with primordial soup. We haven’t yet
produced one-celled paramecium-like things. We’re talking very simple forms of life here.
When we do produce them, they should learn as a species rather than as individuals. Not like
“Unless you think of the human brain as a compilation of connected paramecium-like
Wow. She was a lot brighter than your average bear. In fact, I’d never thought of
putting it quite that way. Perfect.
“I like the metaphor.”
“Not sure I meant it as a metaphor.”
“Want to join my research group?”
“Your research group?”
“You know, a bunch of degree hungry doctoral students and post-docs eager to make
their names by having them appear next to mine in major science journals. Get a plush
teaching job. Tenure. A life of leisure.”
“I doubt you lead that.”
“Certainly I don’t now.”
As she studied the dessert menu, I looked at her face closely. Did I see Julia there?
Looking up at me with her barely alive body resting in my arms. Pleading for help. Did I see
Dolly there? Not at all. Nothing against her. She was special in her own way. But not her. Julia
maybe. Actually I think I just saw Cassie. To hell with you, Jackson.
“Don’t think so.”
“Me neither. Could we have the check please?”
As we waited, I wanted to ask her how she felt about the murders of her sister and
cousin. But I didn’t dare waste an otherwise perfect evening. I had to let that go. Of course,
what if she was in on it? What if dinner was only a ploy to get me to talk? About what?
Besides, I’d be happy to talk. About anything. With anybody. Especially her.
The check arrived. I used a credit card. And within a few minutes she had tucked
herself back into her soft armored suit, and I’d started the car and picked her up at the curb.
Gentlemanly sort that I am.
The trip back to her place was a nightmare. What would I say to her when we got to
her house? Goodnight? Let it be? Make a move? No. She hated that. Would’ve been Jackson’s
ploy. But what? A kiss. Walk her to the door and shake hands. So many ways. And I didn’t
know any of them. Out of it, completely.
We finally got there. We may have talked along the way, though I didn’t remember
saying anything. My mind too busy computing the combinatorial possibilities.
We stopped in front of her house and I shepherded her up the steps to her front door.
She turned and I could barely see her blue eyes peering out at me from inside her multi-
layered coats. Without a heart’s beat, she grabbed my face in her gloved hands, brought my
lips down to hers, and planted a nice soft kiss there. Hers lips were slightly parted. No more
than that. A friendly good night kiss. We stayed that way for a minute, and then she drew
“I enjoyed tonight,” she said.
“So did I.”
“Call me when you get a chance. Okay?”
And she turned, unlocked her front door, went inside, and closed and relocked it. All
my worries gone. All my hopes gone, too.
I walked back to the car. As I did, I remembered my last date. With Dolly. She’d been
murdered right afterwards. I looked around for the cop supposedly watching Cassie’s house.
Didn’t see him anywhere. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Patton had promised me he’d
protect her. I couldn’t stand here all night.
I got in Jackson’s car, started the engine, and slowly made my way back to the
apartment. Looking out for the same icy spots I’d hit on the way to her house earlier. I would
call her again. Nice evening. She was right about that.
I parked where Jackson had previously. Along the snow bank on Main nearest my
apartment. When I stepped out of the driver’s side door, I sensed someone moving near me.
Felt the anger rise in my chest. Not again. The streetlights gave off an icy hint of their
normal selves. Barely enough to make shadows. I played back all the sessions with my Bokator
master. “Don’t let your emotions control your brain. Other way around. It’s not you against
someone you hate. It’s a battle won by the best man. You’re the best man. But only if you
follow the skills you’ve learned.” Was I up to the task?
I could barely see his face. That helped. Made him more anonymous. I was back in the
studio battling one of my classmates. Except this time I wouldn’t hold my punches. This was
for real. Not out of hate. From logic. Skills. To win.
I began to dance like a boxer might. No better way to deceive your opponent than by
pretending to fight using a standard model. A fighter using rules against a fighter without
them. However, the only rules I’d follow were the ones needed to succeed. Everything else
was a wild card. Dancing also kept me warmer. He stood there like a statue. Waiting for me to
stop long enough so he could rearrange my face. Their best man?
He continued to watch me move. Convinced, I suppose, that I wouldn’t make the first
move. A gentlemen and scholar. He could use the dirty stuff, not me. Little did he know.
Without warning he leapt at me feet first. From a standing position. A remarkable feat
that caught me off guard. He hit me in the midsection below my rib cage, and down I went.
The air momentarily knocked out of me. I rolled quickly out of his way, but he’d won round
one. Weakened by the blow, I tried to regain my strength. Not ready to call it quits. Actually,
he’d more than intimated this was for keeps. We’d quit when one of us was dead.
I got to my feet. Still facing him, only now breathing heavily. He’d hit the pavement
after his feet-first opening move, but had not felt the brunt of his blow as I had. He pushed
himself up to his feet and danced like I originally had. I watched and feinted a couple of
times with my left hand. He smiled at my moves. I’d never seen him before. Not like my two
adversaries before, but maybe this one’s better than two. If he’s the right one.
I turned my left shoulder to him, inspiring him to kick me in my kidney. A good
move if your opponent isn’t expecting it. I was, and as he kicked, I turned away, grabbing his
foot midair and twisting it as violently as I could. He tried to roll in the direction of my twist,
but I’d caught him mid-stride. An awkward position. I pulled him and then jerked his ankle as
hard as possible and he went down on his head. As he did, I shot my right foot directly into
his crotch. He screamed, jerked his foot out of my grasp, and doubled up in pain. No more
mister nice guy for me either. I used the heel of my other foot and drove it into his spine,
mid-back, and heard a rib crack. Another scream. Before I could follow that up with another
kick though, he somehow got back on his feet. Limping, but still dangerous. He hadn’t
expected any of that. And it hadn’t made him any too happy.
We started our little dance again. Though less lively on both sides. I smiled at him.
There’s a lot to looking confident in a fight. It makes your opponent think twice before
making a next move. He’d tried it on me. My turn now. He limped a more seriously. My twist
had done some serious damage. Though he was far from finished.
“Okay Francis, I guess you’ve learned a few things. Though not enough.” And as he
saw me listening to his unexpected words, trying to recognize his voice, he brought a
roundhouse kick toward my head. I moved to avoid it, but it grazed my chin and stunned me
for a second. It took that amount of time for him head butt me square in the jaw, sending me
backward and onto the snow-covered pavement. Now I really was dazed. Groggy. I couldn’t
see him in the dark. Vulnerable to almost anything he had left. And he didn’t waste a second.
He brought both his knees down directly into my back and I too felt a rib snap. The pain was
horrific and for a second caught me so unaware that I feared he had me.
But I reached into that reservoir of strength and logic I’d been well taught to save,
and rolled under him instead of away. That surprised him. I grabbed one of those knees that
had cracked my rib and bit directly into his kneecap. No rules. I then rammed my elbow into
the other knee as hard as I could. His leg bent the wrong way and he screamed again. Now
was the time to finish him off. I slammed a fist into his nose as he bent over and heard the
cartilage snap. Suddenly blood gushed over my arm and onto the street. Progress.
I jumped to my feet as quickly as possible, my back so pained that I could barely stand
erect, and kicked him as hard as I could. First in the head. Then the stomach. And on his
probably broken kneecap. He tried to protect himself, though no matter where he covered I
kicked somewhere else. He was too busy with his defenses to begin another offense. Of
course, I was tiring quickly and had taken as much damage as I was inflicting. Only another
ten or so seconds before I’d run out of gas and lose the advantage.
But I lost it long before the ten seconds. Out of adrenaline. He grabbed my foot and
gave it an alarming twist, and I heard something give. Not a bone. Most likely a muscle or
cartilage. I yelled and went down on the pavement with him. We struggled, each wounded
though not yet finished. I could feel the gravel dig into my skin through my clothes. We
rolled over and over in a kind of death grip, neither of us willing to give up for fear the other
would end it.
He growled like some kind of wild animal, and that’s when I knew I had him. In
Bokator, growling means loss of mind. And minds won battles. Always. But we kept rolling.
Off the pavement and into the snow piled alongside the road. Cold. Brutally cold.
Suddenly I had an idea. I brought my knee up into his groin again while
simultaneously bashing his head down into the hard ice. He didn’t know which of my sudden
moves to counter. And, in that brief instant, I raised my arms and broke the hold we had on
one another. I leapt to my feet. For a second giving me the advantage. I hadn’t,
unfortunately, planned for my knee to give. It did, and down I went again. I rolled, stopping
five or so feet from him. And we both lay quietly for a second. Seeing to our injuries.
Someone had to get up first, and it was him. He stood better than I could and before I
had a chance to consider my next move, he literally flew through the air at me. Instinct took
over and I curled my hands into fists and let him fall on them, providing more energy from
his weight than I could have ever brought with my arms alone. He took the full brunt of the
blow and for a second I saw his pupils go up and his eyelids down. As if passing out.
With that, I moved out from under him and struck him in the back of his neck with
my forearm, followed by a harsh kick to his ribs with my one good foot. He groaned. Not
used to being on the losing end of things apparently. But there was no quit there. He rolled
away and tried to get back on his feet. I thought I had him for a second when his legs
buckled, though he somehow regained strength from some hidden source and came at me
with unexpected power. I turned my body but not fast enough. Again he caught me with a
glancing but powerful blow that broke something in my hand. I didn’t feel it. Maybe I was
beyond feeling at that point.
I had to do something and quick. I kicked him in the hip as he went by. He used the
back of his hand and knuckles to catch me in the jaw. My teeth rattled and one gave way. The
blood bubbled from my mouth. This guy was one hell of a fighter.
Both bleeding, stooped over, and limping, we turned to face one another yet again. I
had one ploy left. One he didn’t know about. My teacher had taught me well. The dying bird
move. I said, “Let’s stop,” and moved as if falling in his direction. I timed it perfectly.
Weakness. From his perspective, the kill. I could see him wind his body into a well-oiled
machine and, standing on his one good leg, he swung a roundhouse kick aimed directly for
my head. Perfect if I hadn’t been ready for it.
I feinted my arms outward, crossed them, leaned into him, and scissored him over the
throat. Designed to crush his windpipe and quite capable of doing so. He had no time to react.
I thrust my chin upward into his chin under the jawbone. With everything I had. He gagged,
and I increased my scissor hold as hard as possible. And I dug the heal of my left shoe into his
right leg, hard enough that I could hear the bone break. He tried to get loose, but I had him.
And I listened to his larynx give way, and his throat fill with blood. He was drowning. And I
increased my scissor hold with all my might. No prisoners! And his body relaxed. A trick?
Trying to get me to give in so he could jump me again?
So I didn’t give in. Kept it up with every bit of energy I had left in me. I had to kill
him. At least that’s what I told myself.
Finally I had no more left. Nothing in the tank. And so I too relaxed. If, after all that,
he got up and beat on me, well let him have at it. I couldn’t handle him. Even with all my
training, I had nothing left. His body lay limply next to me. I tried to find a pulse from his
arm. Nothing. Dead? Could it be that easy? Easy? I was a bloody mess. How many bones
broken? How many teeth lost?
I looked at his face and saw movement briefly. God, I thought, I’m not up to anymore
of this. Blood dribbled from his mouth, and what was left of his nose. His body arched, as if in
that death rattle one reads about in novels. Then his body relaxed and gave up.
I waited several minutes. Like I had with Julia.
No more breathing. Or movement. Checked his pulse. Nothing.
After a few minutes, I crawled to my apartment door and knocked for Jackson to come
help. And passed out.
“She do this to you? My God, what a date. I take it back about her being a bucket of
I didn’t have the energy to spar with him. He had sat me on the sofa on a sheet from
my closet and was applying various types of bandages and warm cloths to my wounds. He
also had a full bottle of Beam ready by his side that he now opened and offered to pour down
my throat. I nodded, and in it went. Burning all the way.
Then everything went black. No dreams. Nothing.
When I woke, I was lying on what looked like a hospital bed. Three people stood
around me. Jackson. Looking concerned. Smiling a little because my eyes had opened. Patton.
Looking like Patton always looked. Detached in the way only a professional cop can look. And
Cassie. She gave everything away. She looked horrified.
And under I went again. A black moonless night in North Dakota.
When I emerged from the deep this time, the room was empty. Bright light. Much like
I’d seen that morning so long ago. When all I could think of was the number eleven. What had
that been all about?
A nurse came in. Apparently notified by a blip in my heart rate or some other change
in the many gauges on my condition she had access to at the nurse’s station. My legs hung in
the air in front of me. A long thin tube rested by my side. No doubt hooked up to me in some
way. An IV.
“How are we feeling this morning?”
Ah, the ubiquitous hospital ‘we.’ I had no answer for that. I didn’t know how she felt.
After that introduction, I wasn’t sure I cared.
“How long?” I asked. My words came out sounding like “ow dong.” Something wrong
with my mouth.
“Don't try to talk. You’ve lost a couple of teeth and your mouth is swollen.”
Thanks for the tip, lady.
I tried it again anyway.
“How long?” This time it seemed reasonably understandable. At least to me.
“How long what?” A smart one this.
“Have I been here?”
“A few hours.”
That was good to hear. First thing in the morning. From a nurse yet.
“Will I live?”
Hospital rooms always had echoes. This one was no exception.
“No. Banged up and immobile. But not broken. Ligament damage.”
“Not your doctor, Hon. He’ll be here shortly and let you know everything your little
My little heart?
I tried to move. Nothing seemed connected. Like I was in a straight jacket or
“Don’t try to move, Hon. Doctor’s got you wrapped up tight to let your ribs heal. And
you’re full of narcotics.”
Good to know.
Some young guy came in behind the nurse with a tray. Breakfast no doubt. Jail food.
Something solid. Something liquid. Somethings. I closed my eyes. Shouldn’t have.
When I woke this time, Patton stood at the end of the bed facing me between my legs
in the air. The nurse and the guy with the food had gone. And taken away the food. Damn. I
“How we feeling today, Hon?” Patton said. Damn. He knew just what would bug me.
“How do you think I feel?”
“I wouldn’t go near a mirror anytime soon.”
“Pretty banged up?”
“I’d say so.”
“What about the other guy?” I asked.
“Don’t know about him. Didn’t you do this to yourself?”
“I left him lying in the street outside my apartment. Bled a lot.”
“Nothing there now. What happened?”
“He was waiting for me when I got home last night. We fought.”
“That much I gathered. He obviously got the best of it.”
“Don’t think so. In fact, I may have killed him.”
“Murder number three?”
“No. Self defense.”
“Nothing there, Francis. Not even the sign of a struggle. No blood. Nothing.”
I had no response to that.
“Sure your date didn’t do this?”
“That who it was?”
“Yes. No, she didn’t do it. Some guy I didn’t know did it.”
“An unknown character presumed dead. With no sign that a struggle occurred in the
first place. That about it?”
“Fits the pattern.”
“Your pattern. Or rather lack of pattern. Random hits. First one guy. Then two
different sets of two guys. Now we’re back to one guy. Never a sign of any of them.”
“You think I did this to myself?”
“I doubt that even you could do this to yourself.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“A little more information would help.”
“Like why would anyone want to do this to you?”
“Don't have any idea. Maybe someone doesn’t like me.”
“Not hard to imagine, Francis. Though if it’s the same guy running the show, why not
shoot you and get it over with.”
“I have something he wants. Told you that.”
“Don’t know. Or I’d give it to him. I have nothing to hide. I’d be happy to give it up if
I only knew what he wanted.”
“Any other scenarios?”
“No. I came home. Was accosted. We fought. I came inside and left him in the street.
Dead as far as I could tell. Passed out. Jackson fixed me up and called 911. I’m not sure about
the last part. I didn’t actually see him make the call. But he must have.”
At that moment, Jackson entered the room behind Patton. Like he’d been listening
outside the door.
“Ah, the prodigal son returns to the living.”
“What day is this?” I asked him.
“The next day. The day after. You know, Will. You got mashed last night.”
“Five gold rings. The five books of the Torah.”
“What’s he jabbering about, Jackson?”
“He’s been enumerating the twelve days of Christmas for some reason.”
“One day at a time?”
“Like it means something?”
“Apparently to him it does.”
“Stop with the third person crap,” I yelled.
“Relax, Francis. Remember, you’re out on bail. I could easily haul your ass back into
the county jail anytime I wanted.”
“What have I done?”
“Disturbing the peace. In a hospital no less.”
The nurse made her appearance.
“What’s going on in here?”
“Nothing. The patient’s a bit antsy to get out of here. That’s all.”
“Soon enough,” she said. And left.
“Did you look outside after you brought me in last night, Jackson?”
He shook his head. “Too busy trying to save your life, my boy.”
Jesus. ‘Hon’ first, and now ‘my boy?’
Cassie arrived then. Dressed in her professional outfit. Still looking amazing.
“Will. How do you feel?”
“How do I look?”
“Like you were run over by a truck.”
“That’s about how I feel.”
“Who did this to you?”
“Somebody he doesn’t know.” Patton threw this in for good measure. “Says we should
have found a dead body in the street. Says he got the better of the fight. What do you think?”
She ignored him. “Why would anyone do this?”
Patton again answered. “Doesn’t know. Says he’ll give them anything they want if
they’ll stop. Doesn’t sound to me like he got the best of anyone.”
“Shut up, Patton,” she said. Forcibly. I tried to smile. It hurt.
Patton looked a bit sheepish. Like he’d never been told to shut up before.
“No body. No evidence. I think I’ll leave the boy alone and get some real work done at
the station.” And without hesitation, he turned and walked out of the room. Jackson looked at
me. Then at Cassie. And followed him out the door.
She stepped to my bedside, took a chair and sat down. I tried to follow her with my
eyes, but my head wouldn’t turn, and I gave up trying.
“When can I scram from this joint?” I asked her.
“Probably sometime this afternoon. I think they’re setting it up now.”
“Look at me. How’s that going to happen?”
“You’ve got bruises, swelling, a couple of molars removed for free, contusions, and so
on. But essentially you’re okay. You’ll need crutches for a while. And some painkillers. But
basically you’re good to go.”
I wondered how she got access to all this info.
“I read your chart.”
Ah. She was an MD. A psychiatrist. And a mind reader.
“At the end of the bed,” she added.
“I must look like hell.”
I tried to smile. Wasn’t sure it came off.
“You really don’t know who did this to you?”
“No. Though whoever he was, he was damn good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yes. Cambodian martial arts. I’m pretty good. This guy was at least as good, if not
better. I’m not sure how I got the best of him.”
“Maybe he wasn’t used to fighting in the snow in a winter of North Dakota.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that? Too obvious? Was Cassie that much smarter than me?
Probably. Or had she thought it through ahead of time? After she’d told the guy when I’d be
coming come last night. I didn’t want to think of her as the enemy, but the circumstances fit
like a glove. Even as skimpy as they were.
“I’ve got to go back to work now,” she said. And then, without warning, she delicately
kissed me on the lips. Not like the one last night. Though just as effective. Short and sweet.
She got up and walked out of the room. I liked the way she walked. I liked everything about
her. But was that all planned? To get me to spill the beans? How could it be? I’d spill the beans
to anyone. If they’d just ask me. Suddenly I was still hungry. Not for beans. For something
solid. And something liquid.
As if she’d read my mind, the nurse entered and placed breakfast in front of me on a
stand-alone rack. She smiled, though said nothing.
I’d gotten my wish. Unfortunately, the cook for the jail apparently had the hospital
concession as well. A whole lot of somethings.
True to form, about three that afternoon, if I could trust the clock on the wall, Jackson
and the nurse arrived and unplugged me from the various tubes that kept me stuck in bed.
Neither of them spoke a word. Jackson looked like a pro. Maybe he was an MD, too.
Within minutes, they had rolled me to the edge of the bed and together folded me
into a wheelchair. Nothing hurt much. Probably since I’d been filled with enough dope to
drop an elephant. Everything seemed funny. The nurse. Jackson. The wheelchair. The whole
thing was a riot. Not the kind of high you get with beer. Far better. No wonder they
outlawed the stuff. At least whatever stuff they filled me with.
Together they rolled me out to Jackson’s car. Through the snow and over the ice we
went. Not far, as he’d parked illegally next to the door. They gently forked me into the
passenger’s door, and closed it after me. With the window closed I couldn’t hear what they
said to one another, but it didn’t matter. I could have cared less. The nurse went back inside.
Jackson came around the hood, jumped in, and took off for my apartment. Clockwork.
Like he’d done this kind of thing many times in the past. Maybe he had. After all, while we’d
known each other a fairly long time, I knew nothing much about him. He kept his past well
hidden behind a questioning psychologist’s facade.
We skidded a few times on the ice in the parking lot, though once on the street, we
made a beeline for Main and home.
“Thanks,” I told him.
“No big deal, Francis. After all, you’ve been letting me stay at your place until I can
get my own situation figured out.”
“How is it going there?”
“Your place? Fine. I cleaned it up a bit after you left for the hospital last night. Not
perfect, but it’ll do. Warm and cozy.”
“You have the crutches?”
“In the back seat. May take some getting used to. I’ve had to use them before a couple
of times. Hard on the underarms.”
I couldn’t imagine him hurt enough to need crutches.
Without a wheelchair to help, he somehow got me into my apartment. Mostly, he put
my arm around his shoulders and hiked me inside.
Once there, he poured us both a stiff drink.
“Sure this is okay with the drugs I’m taking?”
“Fine, Will. The doctor even suggested it. Not much. Just enough to help you sleep.”
“More sleep?” I asked as I downed the contents of the shot glass.
“Helps you heal.”
I remembered that word for about ten seconds. Then everything went black again. I
didn’t care. Dreamless sleep folded in around me like a heated blanket.
When I woke this time, Jackson was once again staring at an old black and white movie
on TV. Must be a channel that showed nothing but those kinds of films. I’d have to talk to him
about his growing addiction. He was the psychologist, but ‘physician, heal thyself.’ That how
This time I hurt. All over. Especially my knees and head. I noticed that Jackson had
placed my crutches next to me, leaned against the couch.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Dinner time,” he said, as he turned and looked at me.
“Why didn't you put me in my bed?” I asked, for no good reason I could think of.
“Needed to keep an eye on you. And watch TV at the same time.”
“You know you’re getting obsessed with the thing. You like this when you’re home?”
“Don’t own a TV. Too distracting.”
And with that bit of irony, he got up and went to the kitchen. Brought out a tray full
of food. A meal for both of us.
“How’re you feeling?” he asked.
“About as good as I look, I imagine.”
“Then you should take a couple of these and one of those.” Pointing at two
prescription bottles alongside my food.
And we ate as the television blared in the background. Cary Grant and Ingrid
Bergman. I knew the title, but couldn’t remember it. Fuzzy from the dope. A Hitchcock film.
One of the really good ones.
The food was hard to chew. My teeth hurt. The ones I had left, that is. I could feel the
missing spots in the back of my mouth. The rest seemed okay, though the gums around them
were swollen. A hard whack under my chin. An elbow. I remembered it. I’d returned the
“Same day?” I asked him.
“As when you brought me here?”
“Yep. Not been twenty-four hours since you crawled into the apartment. Wonder
The pills softened my pain a little. And made me woozy again. Everything still felt a
bit on the funny side though.
“I hope this didn’t have anything to do with me,” Jackson said.
“You? Why would it have anything to do with you?”
“Remember. It was my place they dumped. And I the one they tried to gas. Probably
figured I’d be over here again. Maybe they thought you were me and pulled the cork before
they found out.”
“I doubt that. Remember, they’ve tried this stuff with me before. I’ve handled them
pretty well. Thought they’d send their best man. Too proud to bring anyone along with him.
And he didn't need to. The guy was good. Couple of times I thought he had me down and out.
Maybe he was told to rough me up but not kill me. I didn’t give a damn. Maybe that gave me
He looked at me. Obviously I’d given him something to think about.
“Besides,” I added, “he called me by name.”
That seemed to settle that.
Eggs, toast, a great breakfast at dinnertime.
He saw me looking over my plate.
“They suggested this would be a good idea. No steak for a while. Your mouth can’t
“No problem. I could eat breakfast any time of day or night.”
After we ate, he got me to the bathroom and later, as he watched another movie, I fell
This time I woke as the sun came up. I could see it rise out of my sink in the kitchen
window. Bright as the day the number ‘eleven’ came into my life. Apparently we were having
a respite from the line of storms that crossed the North Dakota plains during winter. I
wondered if the snow had melted enough to clear the sidewalks. I was tiring of lying down
and waiting for the world to pass me by. I needed to get up, no matter the pain, and walk
Jackson was still asleep in front of the TV. A two-bit western from the forties. At least
he’d turned off the sound.
I took a deep breath, and without consulting my brain, I hiked myself up and,
standing on one foot, the one with the least pain, tried to work the crutches under my arms.
Not too difficult. I felt my leg, the one I stood on, give way, and promptly fell back down on
the couch, making enough noise to wake Jackson.
“What the hell are you doing, Will? You’re not up to this yet.”
“Apparently not. But at least I’m sitting now, not lying down. That’s an
“True. Though you better let me help you. Where were you going?”
“Bathroom,” I lied.
“Ah. Should have guessed. Been quite a while.”
And with that he got up, grabbed me around the waist, and together we got me to
where I needed to go. And I made my contribution to the environment.
Six geese a-laying, I thought. The six days it took God to create the universe.
My knees hurt, but overall I felt pretty good. Considering I’d almost bought the farm
a day and two nights ago.
Jackson helped me to the kitchen table and made some pancakes. Those, with some
authentic maple syrup, and I was a new man.
“Listen,” I said. “Let’s talk about something. I’m going stir crazy.”
“How about you tell me something about Freud.”
“Sigmund? The Freud?”
“The very one.”
“No reason. I’ve always wondered why he was so important to matters psychological.
Now’s my chance to learn.”
“Okay. Austrian neurologist. Founded psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Both
dependent to some degree on verbal dialog with patients. Thought that virtually all human
behavior was based on sex. Expressed in terms of dreams. Loved the notions of free
association and transference.”
I stopped him there. Too much, too fast. I asked him to explain the last two.
“Free association. I give you a word and you tell me the first thing that comes into
“And I say white?”
“Something like that. But it has to be quick, spontaneous. No thinking about it. For
example, ‘Good’ and then ‘bad.’ After a time, patients forget what they’re doing. Let their
guard down. Then it gets fun. Like ‘gun’ followed by ‘me.’ See?”
“So I say ‘eleven.’ And you say?”
“So, transference. Patients tend to transfer their feelings about someone into the
analyst. Their mother, for instance. Typically into someone important to them. Often a sexual
partner. Lots of advantages taken there, let me tell you.”
“Got it. This how you teach these things?”
“More or less. There’s a lot more to it. I gave you the Reader’s digest version.”
I thought about it for a minute.”
“Could you analyze me?”
“Not a therapist, Will. They’re professionals. Years of training. I’m a teacher of the
“So you really couldn’t help me figure out what ‘eleven’ means?”
“Even if I could, neither of us would know that I did. Unless it became obvious to you.”
“Can we try?”
“You are bored.”
“Just for fun?”
“Will. Therapy’s not a game. Particularly Freud’s version. It’s for real.”
“Oops. Sorry. Treading on thin ice?”
“No. Just trying to convince you I’m not a practicing psychologist. Just a teacher.”
“If you’re not a Freudian, what are you?”
“No. I mean are there competing theories?”
“Reich. Jung. Many others.”
“How about Reich?”
“Interested in character structure. Based a lot of his work on the influences of
physical, economic, and social conditions.”
“Ah. The rebel. A lot of his work is still controversial. Dream analysis, religion,
archetypes. The latter notorious. Individuals inheriting feelings from things long past. Both
Reich and Jung based their work on Freud, but highlighted certain aspects of it, or,
particularly in the case of Jung, developed other attributes in like manner.”
“So how would a Freudian and a Jungian treat a patient differently?”
“Freudians would get down to basics. Sex, mother, rock and roll. A Jungian would
center on inherited stereotypes. Cataloging what you thought based on historical models.
Mind you, this is so general that it’s almost meaningless.”
“So what’s this really all about?” he said.
“Cassie told me you were a Freudian.”
“Jesus,” he said. “That old joke.”
I must have looked confused.
“She meant that I was only interested in sex. Not that that’s my psychological
“So you aren’t a Freudian?”
“I’m a teaching psychologist. I teach all forms of psychology. With equal fervor. What
I research has to do with much more contemporary thought. How would she know anyhow?”
“Sure. And I asked her out.”
“She said no. Simple as that. We never said a word about our professional lives. I have
no idea what she thinks. Nor she about me likely.”
“Oh.” Weak. Probably an understatement of what I was feeling.
I forced Jackson to play chess with me that night. Mostly because I was tired of
listening to the damn TV. Tired of thinking about my wounds. Of three dead people. And
mostly tired of thinking about my one, two, or three girlfriends, two of which were dead, but
all of whom looked pretty much alike. About being out on bail for two murders. And
wondering about Cassie and my relationship with her. About her lacking emotion about her
dead relatives. About who was out to maim though not kill me. Until now apparently. And
maybe a dozen other things that were on my mind at the moment.
No more than three moves into our game, the table jumped suddenly, and several
pieces tipped over and off the table. Then a bright light, far brighter than the one in my
apartment, lit up the room. And the kitchen window imploded throwing broken glass
everywhere. Several dishes fell to the floor and shattered. After that, the sound of an
earsplitting explosion that I could feel through my bruised legs. The table moved several
inches across the floor. All of this within a second or two. Probably just one. Hard to tell.
Jackson leapt from his chair, grabbed the phone, tossed it to me, and charged into the
kitchen like a madman. I gathered my wits and dialed 911. I saw him staring in disbelief out
the now glassless window at what looked like reflections of flames mirrored on his face.
I told the operator my name and address and asked for fire and police as soon as
possible. That a bomb had exploded. That I didn’t know the extent of the damage or whether
the fire was spreading or not. I could hear her gasp and she hung up on me. I hoped that was
a good sign.
“They’ve blown up my car,” Jackson said as he rushed past me toward the front door.
I didn’t have much choice. I sat in my chair imagining what it must’ve looked like
outside. And wondering if it had caught nearby trees on fire or whether my apartment
complex would soon ignite. I was in no position to escape without Jackson’s help, and he’d left
me alone. Sitting in front of my chessboard, now covered with less than a full load of upright
The town fire department was closer than the police station and it arrived in less than
a minute. I could see the reflections of red, white, and blue-spinning lights added to those of
the flames still burning outside the kitchen window. Sirens blazed, and neighbors hurried
past my still open door as they went to investigate. Where had they been when I’d had to
crawl on my hands and knees to get help?
As I sat there unable to help or do anything at all, the wind, no doubt helped along by
the heat from the fire outside, poured through the apartment and out the open front door.
Hell of a thing. I leaned off my chair and let myself slip to the floor. Not fun, though not
nearly as painful with the dope. I crawled toward the couch where my crutches lay. I grabbed
them, hoisted myself upright, and walked toward the open front door. First things first.
Before I got there, however, Jackson came rushing in, nearly bowling me over in his
“They blew up my car!” he yelled at me.
“They who?” I yelled back.
“They whoever. Same ones who trashed my apartment.”
“Is it spreading?”
“Yes. The fire.”
“No. I think they’ve got it under control. We’re safe. At least there’s that.”
“Then close the damn door and let’s get something over the kitchen window before
we freeze to death. Neither us is dressed for this.”
“I’ll get something to cover it,” he said, and ran into my bedroom.
“A sheet won’t help, Jackson. We need to board it up with wood or something.”
“Good idea. You got a hammer and some nails?”
“In the kitchen.” So he ran there and began opening drawers wildly.
“Next to the sink,” I yelled. And pull one of the doors off the wooden cabinet in there.
It should be roughly the same size. Nail it over the window. Anything that isn’t covered we
can plug with towels.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I left him to it, and used the crutches to stagger back to the couch and gently sit
myself down, laying them beside me.
Listening to the various authorities outside screaming at one another, the neighbors
gabbing away, and then Jackson pounding in the nails made my head hurt again. However,
the fire slowly diminished leaving nothing but the revolving lights on the official cars.
Eventually they too wound down and things normalized a bit.
“Got it,” Jackson said, as he re-entered the living room. “Looks like we’ll weather this
“Just like the others,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“These are not meant to kill. They’re to scare us. Or me. But they also bring the police
around, too. Not very smart tactics.”
I looked at him and realized my words had been lost. I think this whole thing had been
a kind of game for him. Until this. Even the trashing of his house. Now that he could see the
violence up close and personal, he finally realized how serious it was.
Someone knocked on the door and entered without invitation. Patton. Looking a little
“Francis, you’re a one man wrecking crew. Couldn’t you find a place to live about a
thousand miles from here? Out in the country. On a farm. Out of my jurisdiction. I’ve been
ten years on the job here. And in all that time I haven’t witnessed anything like this ongoing
I looked at him. Couldn’t deny it. Couldn’t explain it.
“And what have you got to say, Jackson? It’s your car. Was your car anyway.”
“Glad there wasn’t anyone in it at the time.”
“Me, too. Got insurance.”
“Well, there’s that. Any idea who might have done it?”
“Same goons who trashed my apartment.”
“Thanks for the tip. You, Francis?”
“New Year’s Eve fireworks? Got out of hand?”
“Funny. No time for stupid jokes.”
“Then no more of an idea than he has.”
“Any notion what caused it? An accident?” Jackson was reaching.
“Pipe bomb tied to the gas tank. Classic mode used by the mafia. Either of you tied up
with them?” Patton asked.
I looked at Jackson. He at me. We shook our heads no.
“I’m going outside. While I’m gone, I want you two to write down everything you can
think of that might be related to this. Separately. No talking. When I get back I expect you to
be finished with your statements. And sign them.”
He left and we did. Though it was the first time a cop didn’t ask me questions as I did
it. Or had a stenographer taking notes. Didn’t matter. It was probably easier on everybody
this way. Legal or not.
When Patton returned, we’d finished. He collected our single sheets with a few notes
on them and our signatures, and told us he was going to tape off the crime scene and my
apartment for the night and post a round the clock surveillance team on my place until
I thanked him and he left. Closing the door quietly behind him. I wondered if he ever
When things quieted down, Jackson picked up the chess pieces from the floor and
placed them back on the board in exactly the places we’d left them after three moves.
“So, you want to continue?”
“Not particularly. I’d like a beer maybe. And, frankly, I’d like to watch an old movie on
“Now you’re talking.”
“And bring the whole case out here. I feel like more than one.”
He smiled at that.
When I woke, I heard seven swans a-swimming. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
More like the sun melting snow off my roof and making splashes in puddles. New Year’s Day.
The first day of the rest of my life. God was I tired of that brainless epithet.
The phone rang. A sound I dreaded. Especially since it would take me five minutes to
reach it on my crutches. Thankfully Jackson picked it up.
“Francis? You up?”
“I am now.”
“Wait there. I’ll bring it to you.”
I could hear him whipping the extension cord on the phone back and forth to clear it
from some tangle and come into the bedroom. Handed me the phone and left.
“Professor Francis?” Male voice.
“Saul Perlmutter, here. Professor in the math department.”
“Heard your name. Don’t think we’ve met.”
“No. And I’m sorry about calling on New Year’s Day.”
“Not a problem. Dullest day of the year.”
“I called to say that we shared a student this past semester. Buster, I think she calls
Shared a student? Funny way to put it.
“She’s in my lab. Yes.”
“Good student. Anyway, after one of my classes on chaos theory, she stopped by
during office hours and gave me a brief summary of your research and some of the problems
“Yes?” A yes man was I.
“I thought it might be useful for us to meet sometime. To see if we could find some
common ground. I, too, work with non-linear math, something I think you’re familiar with.”
“I am.” Variation on a theme.
“I’m involved in a project that’s trying to define explicitly how to test a formula for
certain types of non-linearity.”
“Interesting,” I told him.
“Have you heard of multivariate nonlinear regression?”
“Sure. Standard predictive model. Straightforward.”
“Good. First test.”
“Root Mean Squared Error. Sure.”
“So you’ve tried these in your research.”
“First thing. However, they don't work because I’m not interested in predicting
results, I’m interested in finding formulas exhibiting non-linear origins of chaos pointing to
future states of order.”
“That’s what she said.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry. A little hung-over.”
“Anyway, that’s why I’m calling. To tell you there may be other ways to skin this cat.”
“I’d like to hear them.”
“How about now?”
“New Year’s day?”
“Not much else to do.”
“I’ll be right over. Same address as in the book?”
“If you mean the telephone book, that’s it.”
“See you in ten minutes.”
I’d always thought biologists would be interested in my work. How could I have
missed mathematicians? Should be interesting.
“What the hell language were you speaking?” Jackson asked, standing in the doorway.
“Non-linear math. No big deal.”
“How about breakfast?”
“Sure. I can help you make it.”
“Already made. Can’t you smell it?”
“With my nose?”
“He coming over?” Jackson asked.
“In about ten minutes.”
We got me to the table and ate in quiet ambience. Me staring at the boarded-over
window and the broken dishes still lying all over the floor.
“You know, Jackson, we should figure a way out of this mess, don’t you think?”
“I do. If I had a clue how to do it.”
“Probably began with a non-linear equation.”
“Trying to teach me something?” he asked.
“Why not. Never too late.”
“With me it is.”
Ten minutes on the mark, and with me still wiping the eggs from my mouth, the
doorbell rang and Jackson answered it.
Perlmutter was the perfect model of a math professor. Long white beard. Wild white
hair pointing in every which direction. He introduced himself to Jackson thinking he was me.
Jackson turned and pointed towards the kitchen.
“Saul, I presume.”
“Yee Gods, what happened to you?” he said.
“You should’ve seen the other guy.”
“I think I’ll skip that. Sure you’re up to talking about our mutual problems?”
“Absolutely. Anything to pass an otherwise wasted day.”
I watched him look over the apartment. Especially the kitchen mess including the
“Jackson’s car blew up last night.”
“Oh,” he said, and kept starring.
“And if you’re wondering, we’re not an item. Jackson’s visiting because his house is
“Un-renovated’s more like it.” Jackson said.
“Looks like yours is, too.” Saul added.
“You could say that. Coffee?”
“Never touch the stuff.”
“Water? Orange juice? I’m pretty well stocked.”
“Nothing. Thanks for asking.”
“Sit down then. I’ll be right with you.”
And, cripple that I was, I made my way across the room on my crutches and whisked
the chess set back into its box.
Jackson found the TV and a headset, and turned on the movie channel.
Saul stared at it.
“Long time since I’ve seen a black and white television,” he said.
“Television’s color. Black and white movie. Apparently Jackson has become fond of
With the prelims out of the way, we sat down and I sketched out what my research
group’s purpose was and its latest problems. He listened patiently and occasionally smiled at
a particularly thorny issue.
“Chicken or the egg, right?” he said.
“Begin at the bottom and hope for the best. Start at the top and face a monumental
task of reverse engineering.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
“So, you have a definition of life?” Saul asked.
“I do. It’s pretty simple in some ways. Complex in others.”
“Can I hear it?”
“You really want to?”
”Okay. Hold on tight. You might want to take notes.”
“Not necessary. I have an excellent memory.”
“Alright. Here goes. A ‘thing,’ something separate and distinct. This ‘thing’ exists
within an environment. It’s able to move around in that environment, and can ingest aspects
of that environment. It can access what it finds, ingest it for renewal, and excrete the
remains. It procreates in some way, and has a means of communicating with other objects of
like kind. It inherits characteristics from its parent or parents. Something biologists call
crossover. Mutation can occur during procreation, though isn’t common. Contains a desire to
continue to exist, but must die at some point. It’s children carry on. Hopefully at a higher
level. That’s it, in a nutshell.”
“Quite a definition.”
“Remember that this is a recipe for life, not for intelligence. Or for that matter any
particular life. It’s not based on carbon as we are, nor exists in an environment like we inhabit.
In short, if all these criteria are met, then a computer simulation is not just virtual. It’s the
“Artificial life becoming real life?”
“That’s the idea. Though not a very popular one. As testified to by the decades of
antagonism the field has encountered from more conservative scientists.”
“And so, having that as a model, you’re attempting to figure out the right primordial
digital soup that could eventually produce it.”
“And you’re finding it as difficult as the proverbial needle in the haystack. None of
your soups have produced life.”
“Because there are an infinite number of non-linear equations to draw from.”
“That’s pretty much as Buster described it. Though it’s better to get the story from
the horse’s mouth. No insult intended.”
“We have pretty much the same problem. As you know, non-linear equations produce
continuously evolving results such that after a period of time, you can no longer compute
the originating formula backwards from the results you get.”
“Right,” I said.
“Determinate, absolutely. No randomness involved. It’s just that the complex behavior
at any certain evolutionary point except for the first few iterations, doesn’t point to any
particular equation. And hunting one down that works could take centuries, millennia, or
infinity for all we know. There may, at least in some cases, be several different formulas that
might work as well.”
“We figure we’ll take any formula that would produce A-life.”
“But you don’t know any way to find one except by making a long list of non-linear
equations and keep punching away at it.”
“Worse than that. Even with high-speed computation, we don’t know when to give up
on a certain formula. We have to guess when we’ve passed the point where a so-called
attractor should have formed if it was going to.”
“Quite a mess.”
“And there’s no incremental progress. We’re never any further along than when we
“Except that you’ve discarded a lot of formulas that haven’t proved useful.”
“Yes. However, since we didn’t know when to stop testing them, we’re not really sure
they wouldn’t have succeeded given more time.”
“And you’re using this bottom-up technique because?”
“Standard procedure. Top-down traditionally produces less results than none. Where
do you go from the top when you have no idea where the bottom lies.”
“I thought that there were numerous ways to check a function’s non-linearity
probability to produce chaotic results like we require to create our primordial soups.”
“There are. Though none does what you want them to do. If you could find such a
beast, what would you do with it?”
“Use it to test formulas for productive non-linearity.”
“Give us a few highly probably candidates. Possible?”
“Probably not. But hell, Will, we’re theoretical mathematicians. Don't give a damn
whether what we do has practical applications. It’s the beauty of math. That’s all.”
“There you have it. My unsolvable problem.”
“Well, think about this. If we could produce a general model, you could limit the
number of formulas you would need to test your primordial soup maker. Rate one group
over another in terms of possible success, and limit your beginnings to those that have some
merit. Might help.”
“But have you finished your general model?”
“No. Thought maybe we could help one another.”
“My math is not so hot these days.”
“Neither is my A-Life. Though we’ve got graduate students in common. Why not
exploit them for both our benefits.”
Had never quite heard it put that way. Sounded good though.
Jackson, I noticed, had fallen asleep in front of the TV again. Just as Cagney was
breaking out of prison.
I offered my guest lunch. If he was willing to make it. He agreed.
The phone rang as we finished eating.
Jackson, woken from his nap, brought it to me, happy to see we’d left him a tuna
sandwich to eat.
“Happy New Year!” she said.
“Back to you.”
“How’re you feeling?”
“Better. I’m getting around okay. And I’m off the pain pills.”
“Like to gobble a little with me?”
Not sure exactly what she meant.
“Sure. But I’m still tied to home base.”
“Couldn’t Jackson bring you by?”
“He could, if someone hadn’t blown up his car.”
“Blew up his car?”
“Yep. Blew out my kitchen window, too. Car’s more than totaled.”
“Not a chance. We’ve got round-the-clock surveillance now. You could come over
“Was hoping to be alone together.”
Sounded like a wonderful oxymoron to me.
“Me too, though it’s not going to happen. Sorry.”
“How’s the weather outside?”
“Big storm on its way. Should hit this evening.”
“If you come over early, you could get back before it hits.”
“We’re planning a beer and pretzel early dinner.”
“I’ve got a turkey. Could easily feed three.”
She agreed. Be good to see her again.
As I put the phone down, someone knocked on the door. One thing about this year’s
January 1. A lot more exciting than last year.
Jackson pulled the door open. Patton.
“Greetings,” he said.
Saul came out of the kitchen and looked at him.
“And you are?” Patton asked.
“Saul Perlmutter. Math professor at the U.”
“And you’re here because?”
“Talking research with Francis.”
“Can we talk?” Patton asked.
“We? All of us?” Wasn’t sure which ‘we’ he was talking about.
“Sure. Nothing confidential, I suppose.”
“C’mon in and join the party. Tuna sandwich?”
“So. What’s new?” I asked him.
“Car’s gone, street’s cleaned up, and I’m pulling the surveillance.” Concise.
“Any suspects?” I asked.
“Not a one. No prints, of course. Nobody’s turned themselves in. Another unsolved.”
“What brings you around? New Year’s cheer?”
“I’ve been thinking this whole thing over.”
“What whole thing?”
“The dead girls, you getting beaten up, Jackson’s house, the car, everything.”
“Treating it as one case?”
“I’m beginning to think so. Would be my preference. Thinking of it as five or six
separate ones committed by different people would be a nightmare.”
Saul took all this in without a question. But his eyes grew wide at the mention of dead
girls, and it looked like most of this was news to him.
“So, what’s your idea?” I said.
“I’d like to be able to predict what’s next on their schedule. You know, try to plan
ahead instead of reacting.”
Not bad thinking. For a cop.
“You’ve come to the right place, Patton. We’ve been talking about things like that.
Saul is a treasure trove of information on how to make lists of probabilities.”
“Sure. You’re a mathematician.”
“Well I’ve got an idea anyway.” Patton said.
“Of what you think they’ll do next?” I asked.
“Probably not. But maybe who they might be.”
“Can we sit down?”
“Sure. Want a beer?”
He stared at me. An on duty cop? I couldn’t believe I’d asked. However, it looked more
like he was considering it than challenging me on my offer. However, he ignored me.
“You once told me that you thought the reason others were getting killed was
because you had something they wanted. They needed you alive. Obviously they didn’t care
too much in how alive, given the beating the other night. But nonetheless alive.”
“I did say that.”
“Though they haven’t been escalating their tactics. They killed first. When that didn’t
work, they reversed to attempted assault, and ultimately to car bombings. A long way from
shooting a young girl in the back. Doesn’t make sense. Unless, of course, they ran out of
“The two girls we’re hit because they were expendable for some reason?”
“Something like that. Though they posed more of a distraction, I think. Took you
away from what they wanted, even needed you doing.”
“Yes. Somebody thinks you’re working on important stuff and wants to know about it.
Have to keep you alive. But scare you into telling them. The murders didn’t work.”
But I’ve told you already, there’s nothing I wouldn’t tell anybody to have saved those
lives, or keep them from beating me up and rearranging Jackson’s life.”
“True. Though as you yourself said, maybe you don't know what they think you know.
So nothing’s clear at this point. You need to figure out what possible motive someone might
have for wanting to know about your work and what you don’t know about it yourself. And
then figure out what kind of person could use that to their benefit.”
As tongue twisting as it was, he actually made a certain kind of sense. I think at least
two of us in the room had figured that out at one time or another. However, no one had put it
into words, or given it its proper dues. Patton had actually made an important point.
“I think you’ve got a real theory there.” I told him and let it stand at that.
I added, “But I thought I was your number one suspect? Out on bail am I not? For
killing two people.”
I should have left it alone.
“You are. And that still goes. I’m here to tell you your hearing date. January sixteenth,
ten in the morning.”
“You don’t actually think I did it. Be honest now.”
“Stuff it, Francis. I work for the city, and as far as the city is concerned you’re the man.
I can conjecture all I want. No law against that. But you’re the one good for it as of now.”
He turned to go and saw Cassie standing at the door ready to knock as he opened it.
“Miss Thurman,” he said. Tipped his hat and kept going.
“What was that all about?”
“Not sure,” I said.
“I have no idea what’s going on around here,” Saul said.
“Who’s he?” Cassie asked.
“Saul? Meet Cassie Davies.”
“Pleased,” he said, and stuck out his hand.
They shook, and things settled down again. Cassie came in. Closed the door. Took off
her coat revealing a plain suit, not a revealing blue dress, and we sat down.
“So what is going on?” Saul asked.
“After we eat,” I told him.
I asked both Jackson and Saul to help Cassie carry in the package she’d brought along.
A big turkey covered in foil. Most likely cooked, since it had grease marks all over it. Baked
into the aluminum.
“More in the car,” she said.
When they disappeared out the door, she came over and kissed me gently on my good
“How are ‘we’ doing today?” she asked, aware of my dislike of that term.
“We are doing fine,” I told her. “A little bruised here and there, and I’m not ready for a
marathon. In a month or so maybe. More likely never.”
She smiled and helped me into a chair.
“I have something to tell you,” she said quietly.
“Later,” she said as Jackson and Saul came in carrying the rest of the meal. How good is
this? I asked myself. My life going down the toilet, and yet spending time with friends on
New Year’s Day. Hell of a thing.
Cassie went into the kitchen and stared at the covered window.
“No sign of anything outside,” she said. “Cleaned up nicely.”
“One thing they do well around here.”
“Have a broom?”
“For the dishes?”
“In the closet. But Jackson can do that.”
“Maybe I’d like to do it,” she said.
“Okay.” Now things were really looking up.
The four of us sat around the kitchen table on the newly cleaned floor and ate until we
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said when we lifted our glasses for a toast.
“Happy Thanksgiving?” they said, almost in unison.
And we told our own versions of what had happened over the past couple of weeks for
Saul’s benefit. He apparently wasn’t married. Or maybe a widower. At least he showed no sign
of being missed by anyone. I thought of asking, but didn’t want to mar the evening with yet
“Jesus,” he said when we’d finished. “Cops have really kept this under wraps. Not much
about it in the papers that I remember.”
“You read the local paper?” I asked.
“Not cover to cover. Enough so I’d notice this though.”
“You’d think they’d want to advertise it. Have the community give them clues,
sightings, and the like.”
“Don’t know,” Jackson said. “Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of people who know a
lot more than we do. And they’re not telling us anything at all.”
And the table went quiet. Maybe everyone knew more than I did. Everyone was
keeping something from me. I looked at Cassie. She knew more than I did. She’d whispered as
much to me earlier when she’d arrived. Jackson didn’t know squat as far as I was concerned.
Then again, why did someone want to scare him with the tossing of his house and exploding
his car? I’d just met Saul. He seemed completely out of it. All an act? Am I getting paranoid?
“Dessert anyone?” Cassie asked.
And then came the pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Who could ask for anything
more? Especially on Thanksgiving, New Year’s, whatever day it was?
By the time they’d finished cleaning up, I’d camped on the couch reading a book on
non-linear math I’d fished out of my bookcase from my graduate days. Saul was impressed. I
couldn’t say that about Cassie or Jackson.
“Thanks for the dinner, Cassie,” Saul said. “And the conversation. I usually spend New
Year’s alone since my wife died. So it’s great to be among friends for this one.”
“You going, Saul?” I asked him.
“Have to. Sorry. I’ve got a few papers to review for publication, and a lot of email
catching up to do. I’ll be in touch.”
“Great,” I said. “I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on my problems. The research
ones, I mean.”
“Sure. Nice to meet you Cassie and Jackson.”
All the usual pleasantries and Saul left us to our chess and whatever else we could get
“Jackson, could you leave us alone for about five minutes?” Cassie said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Go, Jackson,” I said. “Into the bedroom or the bathroom. Just for a few minutes. She
wants to tell me something. Private. You know about such things.”
“Oh,” he said. And chose the bathroom.
“Sorry about being blunt,” she said.
“Blunt is the order of the day around here.”
“This is not for idle ears.”
“Jesus, Cassie. What’s going on?”
“Doris is missing.”
“No one knows where she is.”
“Since yesterday morning. Her folks are up in arms about it. They think you did it.
Your third murder. Have been bashing down Patton’s door to get him to revoke your bail.
Consider you a public menace. Get the judge to set the hearing earlier.”
“Forget about that. Where could she have gone?”
“Nowhere. All her friends are in town. Far as any of us knows, she’s never spent a
night anywhere else. But no one knows where she is. Didn’t show up at her apartment last
night. Didn’t call her parents like she always does.”
“And everyone assumes that I did it? Using crutches yet? Maybe you should take a
photo of me and show it to them. Let them see how impossible it would be for me to have
“That’s probably why Patton didn’t mention it to you.”
“Anyone search her place for notes she might have left behind?”
“I’m sure Patton did. He’s stationed a man over there just in case she returns.”
“Probably one of the same poor guys he had over here last night. What a mess.
Although this one’s not my doing. Nor the others for that matter. Except maybe for the guy
who did this to me.” And I raised my worst leg from the floor.
“We’ve got to do something about this,” I said, not referring to my leg.
“Can I come out now?” Jackson called.
“Why didn’t you want Jackson to know about this?”
“Keeping it close to the vest. Remember, even I’m not supposed to know.”
“How do you know?”
“My folks told me. They weren’t supposed to. Just couldn’t help themselves.”
“C’mon guys,” Jackson pleaded.
“You can come out now, Jackson. John Wayne is waiting for you.”
Cassie looked at me and gave up.
Jackson emerged from his cell and headed right for the TV. And sure enough, I’d been
right. A good one, too. Wake of the Red Witch. Probably the best film Wayne ever made. An
actually complex character. And in black and white.
Cassie and I sat in the kitchen away from the TV.
“So, what if we’re wrong?” I said.
“What they’re after.”
“What if it’s not about me? Only looks that way. And what if it’s not about Jackson
either? What if it only looks that way from our perspective?”
“So it’s about something else entirely?”
“Yes. Maybe looking at it from a different angle would help.”
“You start,” she said.
“Don’t know. I was hoping you’d have a try first.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin. If we can’t figure out what it might be about if it’s
centered around you, how can we figure out what it might be about when we take you out of
“Don’t take me out of the picture. Just move me to the sidelines with everyone else.
No longer the center attraction.”
“Then why have so many people been trying to beat you up?”
“Maybe to divert attention to what’s really going on. It could make sense.”
“So what are the alternatives?”
We were whispering, but maybe Jackson could hear us anyway. I looked out the door
to check. Still watching the Duke. And, of course, what if he did hear? So what?
“What was that all about?”
“Just checking. If he was listening, I thought he could join us. Make his own
“So what do we do?” she asked.
“Make some guesses. No matter how far out they might be.”
“Give me an idea.”
“Okay. Suppose you’re it.”
“Me? What did I do?”
“You’re the only woman in the family not dead or kidnapped except for your mother.”
“I don't know ‘so?’ Only taking a shot in the dark.”
“Well, your first shot was wide of the mark,” she said.
“Okay. How about your father?”
“How about him?”
“Could he be involved in any of this?”
“Kill members of his own family? I hardly think so.”
“Okay. Patton then.”
“Patton’s been a cop for a long time. He was born here. He’s always been a two shoes.”
“Two shoes?” I asked her.
“As in ‘goody.’”
“But what if he got himself into a jam? Been gambling on the side. Had an affair. Work
with me here.”
“Patton? You've seen his devotion to the job. Jeez, I don’t think he ever goes home.”
“Okay. You give it a try.”
“Leaving you and Jackson out of it?”
“Who’s left?” she asked.
“Almost everyone in town. But of those we know, how about Doris?”
“Doris? You’re kidding me. She’s too out of it to do anything. Would make no sense to
“Me either. Besides she’s been kidnapped. Or at least we suppose so.”
“What about Joe then?” she said.
“Joe Wise? The PD?”
“Don't know much about him. Seems bright enough.”
“To be the one?”
“No. Seems too straight and narrow. He’s not the type for this.”
“Granted,” she said.
“How about Judge Williams or the DA. What’s his name? Mann?” I asked.
“Not a chance.”
“Saul?” I said, just to cover the bases.
“Don't know. Just met him. Doesn’t seem likely. An old math professor?”
“I know. Sounds pretty ridiculous.”
We stopped whispering.
“How about ‘what’ rather than ‘who?’ Maybe the ‘what’ would tell us the ‘who.’”
“Good idea,” she said.
“You brought it up.”
“Gambling debt,” she said.
“No casinos near by. I rather think the whole population of the state wouldn’t draw
enough money to make it worthwhile for anyone to set up shop here.”
“The Internet?” she asked.
“Possible. Not likely.”
“Maybe it has something to do with the CIA or FBI. One of those acronym government
deals gone bad.”
“Terrorism?” I asked.
“In North Dakota?”
“Okay, let’s start with North Dakota. What’s here that anyone would want bad enough
to murder two people over?”
We stopped to think. Uranium? Prostitution? Drugs?
“Lots of room,” I said.
“Huh?” she asked.
“An idea. That could be worth plenty.”
“Depending on the idea.”
“And who has any ideas that might be worth killing people over?” I said.
“Yes you. You’re the one involved with artificial life.”
“A-Life. But I’m failing at it.”
“Maybe not failing at it as far as they’re concerned,” she said.
“Whoever wants to know what you don’t know you know.”
“Back to that again,” I said.
“What are you guys whispering about in here?” Jackson interrupted.
“We’re hypothesizing. Trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“Oh. I can’t hear the TV,” he said.
“It’s broken?” I asked him.
“No. You’re whispering too loud.”
Cassie left before the storm hit. Jackson watched the rest of whatever he was watching
and hit the couch. I went to bed and read more about non-linear equations.
My book gave some generalities, and then said that one type of chaotic output
depended on the values of variable in quadratic equations, those with a squared variable in
them. Some values for the variables worked. Others not. But I knew that. So once again I
grabbed my computer and ran my favorite trigonometric quadratic X(n + 1) = 1/cosine Xn2.
Looked complicated, but wasn’t. The variable X(n + 1) results from 1 divided by the cosine of an
initial value of Xn squared. In other words, if Xn begins at 2 then a new X(n + 1) would result
from being squared, turned into its cosine, and then divided into 1. This new value of X, now
termed (n + 1) in the formula, then substitutes for the value 2 for Xn. And the results would
continue producing output infinitely, or until some predetermined ending point was
reached. Compute this, and you get a continuous stream of different numbers. A mixture of
positives and negatives, with most small, but then unexpectedly leaping to very high or low
values. Simple equation. Chaotic results. But order never returns. Damn!
Somewhere during the night the wind began howling, and hail followed by snow
covered our little town in North Dakota. Sounded like the worst of the year. Saying a lot for
this part of the globe. I made sure the thermostat had us warm for the night and finally hit
the sack around three. Early for me, though I needed the sleep.
I rarely dream, but the lack of physical exercise had reversed my usual trend and I
found myself in a strange land, involved in a game. One side used bowling balls, trying to
knock my side down like pins in an alley. All we had was our wits to keep us from getting hit.
A nice metaphor for my life at the moment. My side had Cassie, Jackson, and the rest of us
jumping around like live pins for the balls to hit. If only I could remember who the bowlers
were. I could see their faces clearly. I just couldn’t remember who they were.
I woke around four, sweating, and wondering why my mind had chosen the word
‘remember’ rather than ‘recognize.’ Did I already know who the murderers were? I checked
the thermostat that I’d thankfully placed near the bed. Reset it to slightly cooler. And tried
to sleep again. I did, but dreamt no more. My subconscious had apparently done its job. No
replays. I had all the information I needed. Or, possibly, I’d remembered too much of what
Jackson had told me about psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and so on.
When I woke again, it was morning. Eight maids a-milking. The beatitudes. I got up
and tried to walk on my own. Tough sledding, though I made it to the door without
collapsing. The pain was bearable and diminished as my muscles got into the swing of things.
I looked out the side window at snow at least four feet deep against the glass. I hoped it was a
drift and not the actual amount dropped on us. Of course, we’d had eight feet on the ground
before, so this was no surprise. Still snowing heavily though. No end in sight.
I got to the kitchen and drank a glass of water. Started some coffee. And made my
way slowly to the living room. Everything was fine. The TV off. The door still closed and
locked. Only one thing missing. Jackson. I checked the bathroom. No one there.
“Jackson?” I asked the empty apartment.
“Great. Now he’s disappeared.” Again, out loud. Apparently everyone was slowly
vanishing from my life now. I wondered if the telephone lines were still up and working. I
went slowly back to my room and dialed Patton’s number. Of course he answered.
“Yeah.” His morning voice.
“Francis here. Jackson’s gone missing.”
“No he hasn’t.”
“How would you know?”
“I’m staring at him as we speak.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“What’s he doing down there?” I asked.
“He’s been here most of the night.”
“When I last saw him, he was on my couch. Almost asleep.”
“What do you mean?”
“He tells me that he heard you and Cassie making plans to murder him.”
“What? What is he talking about?”
“Were you talking with her in the other room?” Patton said.
“Yeah. We were whispering. Didn’t want to disturb him.”
“Well you apparently did. He’s down here swearing out a warrant for your arrest.”
“You heard me.”
“Have you talked to Cassie about this?”
“Just got off the phone with her.”
“Well then you know the truth. We were making guesses as to who might be involved,
that’s all. He could have joined us if he’d wanted to. Instead, he wanted to watch those old
black and white jobs on TV.”
“So Cassie told me the truth?”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“Because it doesn’t jibe with your version.”
“She says you were trying to convince her to pop Jackson, just like he says.”
“This a joke.”
“No. I’m sending a car to pick you up now. This is not going to look good on your
sheet, Francis. I think the judge will up your bail way beyond what you can borrow. Expect a
few weeks’ stay in our luxurious accommodations.”
“This makes no sense at all.”
“You’re right about that.”
“I’ve got to talk to Cassie.”
“No you don’t. I won’t have you intimidating witnesses. You stay there. I told her not
to answer her phone. My man will be at your place in ten minutes. Tough sledding out there.
Wait for him and they’ll be no problem. See you shortly.”
And he hung up on me.
Dumbfounded couldn’t begin to describe my feelings at that point. My faith in people
had reached absolute zero. I couldn’t imagine what had caused Cassie and Jackson to make
this stuff up. Or was it me? Had I actually said those things? Maybe caused by a concussion
from the fight. Or had I woken up one day with ‘eleven’ on my brain and from then on my
life had been one mad universe?
What to do? Ten minutes to make a choice. Actually, a lot less than that if I planned on
anything except waiting for my jailer to appear and take me to his dungeon. Should I run? To
where? And how? No car. No real running ability. But it was either that, or wait calmly for my
lifetime incarceration. Or maybe the chair.
Almost without thinking, I grabbed the phone and dialed the number of the leader of
my little research group. Buster. She lived in the dorms, empty now until late January. Maybe
she could help. Her phone rang twice and she picked up.
“Buster. This is Francis.”
“Oh,” she said. Surprised. I rarely phoned her. And when I did it was usually to call an
emergency meeting of the group to talk through some cockamamie idea that had crossed my
“Listen, I wonder if you’d do me a favor.”
“I’m cooped up in my place here with a busted window. Freezing. You still an RA in
“Resident Assistant? Yes.”
“And that’s where you are now?”
“Would it be possible for you to house me for a couple of nights in one of the empty
rooms? Just until the glass guys can come and put in a new window? I’m burning lots of
calories trying to keep warm.”
“Against regulations, but sure. No problem.”
“And could you come over and pick me up as soon as possible? I’ve turned off the heat
so I don’t waste it out the window. It’s getting very cold.”
“See you in two,” she said.
“Sure. The dorm is just down the street from you.”
“Could you come the back way? It’s easier for me to walk down the hallways of the
apartment house than try and reach Main through all that snow.”
I wanted to add something like ‘you saved my life,’ except I didn’t want to sound
I grabbed a small carryon bag I used when flying, tossed in my computer and power
cord, all of my pain medications, some underwear, toothbrush, whatever else I might need,
pulled on several overcoats, and headed out the door. Slowly, of course, but with as much
speed as possible given my physical condition.
The streets had apparently been cleared and that meant Patton’s ten minutes might
be more like four or five. I locked the door. That would give me extra time. They wouldn’t
have gotten permission to open my door yet, so it would be noon maybe before they made
sure I wasn’t hiding in there, refusing to answer.
I made my way out to where I said I’d meet Buster, and found her waiting with her
tailpipe coughing black smoke into the early morning air.
“Thanks so much for this,” I said, and crawled into her front seat, half covered with
“Jesus, Doctor F., what happed to your face?”
“Long story, Buster. About me and a doorknob. I’ll tell you sometime. Now let’s get
me to the dorm and some warmth.”
“Right,” she said, and peeled away from the curb.
And she was right about the two minutes. One long blink and she had parked behind
the dormitory in a lot occupied by no other cars whatsoever.
“I live on the fourth floor,” she said. “Are you going to be okay with that?”
“Well, if the rest of you looks like your face, I doubt you can walk up that many steps.”
“I’ll make it. Only take me a few minutes longer. Or maybe you could find a room for
me on a lower floor.”
“No access. My job covers the fourth floor only. You could stay in an empty room
down on the first floor, but it wouldn’t have anything in it.”
“Like a bed?”
“Empty rooms have beds, dressers, and so on. No towels, blankets, or sheets, things
“Actually, that would be fine. I’ve got these coats I’m wearing. They’ll be heat there?”
“Sure. But that’s about it.”
“Show me,” I said, as we walked slowly toward the front entrance.
And she did. Third one down on the right. A typical one-room single. One twelve by
sixteen room whose square footage was diminished by a portable bathroom and closet. A
metal bed with springs and a mattress lying on top. Window looking out on the parking lot
with a pull curtain for privacy. As bare minimum as it gets.
“Fine,” I told her.
“You can lock it from the inside when you’re in,” she said, though it stays unlocked
when you’re not. I doubt anyone would steal anything. The place is dead right now. But you
never know. I’d take your stuff with you when you go out.”
“Sounds good. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. They should be fixing my
window shortly and I can return.”
“As I say, no problem. These rooms are just sitting here. Might as well put one of them
“I hope you’re not feeling as bad as you look,” she said.
God, was I still that bad?
“No. I’m okay. Couple more days and I’ll be good as new.”
“Nope. And thanks again.”
She took off up the stairs two at a time. Leaving me alone with my thoughts and my
window. I looked out and saw her car. Alone. Cooling down. Heat waves propagating from the
hood and tailpipe.
I tried to see my apartment, but the diner blocked the way. The diner. Had they found
Doris yet? Was Doris actually missing? Or was that a lie too? I realized how lonely I was. And
how I couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Not even Buster. How long would it take Patton to
figure out my plan and come looking for me here. How many lies would he tell Buster? And
how long before I found myself back in that damn cell, eating my solid and liquid
The day passed slowly. I hadn’t brought a book. No TV or radio. No deck of cards. The
room did have Ethernet though, so I plugged in my computer only to discover the line was
dead. With no one in the dorms supposedly, the Wi-Fi didn’t work either. I had plenty of work
to do planning my spring semester classes. Unfortunately, nothing to get my mind off my
current predicament. No phone, of course. And one sip of the water from the portable
bathroom told me that I’d soon have to go to a restaurant or grocery to make this work.
I chose grocery. One I’d never visited before. Walking was tedious, especially in the
snow, but I got there. Unfortunately, most of the merchandise looked ten years old and
unsafe. But I needed anonymity more than I needed good food at this point. I stocked up on
items that had long shelf lives. With no stove to cook on, I settled for my favorites. Tuna fish,
peanut butter, bottled water, and the like. And carried them slowly back to my new room. All
the while keeping an eye out for police or so-called friends. No one out and about. The
second of January. Still recovering from the holidays.
I ate my solitary mid-afternoon meal as the sun slowly peaked out from behind the
leftover clouds from our most recent blizzard. Not as bad as they’d predicted. Thank God.
Had it been, I’d be in custody waiting to visit the judge again with my PD, Joe Wise. Instead I
had chosen my own prison, waiting for someone to find me. Wouldn’t be hard. Connect with
Buster and come get me. Simple as that.
As the afternoon wound down toward evening, I entertained options for moving from
my current location. Saul. Seemed like a good man. I had no ties to him. Just someone who
called out of the blue and we’d spent New Year’s Day together. Maybe he would help me out
of this mess. Bright man. I could call him and ask for temporary refuge. But what would I say?
What would he believe? Hell, I didn't believe the most recent twists. Except he was my only
option at the moment. I decided to sleep on it.
My dinner consisted of more tuna fish and peanut butter. I read a previous class
syllabus for my spring semester course. Were I still around to teach it. Not dead or
incarcerated. I took a couple of pain pills. Not because I hurt. Because I was bored and really
wanted a beer or a shot of Beam. Neither was possible, so my prescription backup would have
to do. I worried about getting in a bit deep with the stuff, and what it might be doing to my
psyche. And liver.
I drifted off around ten or so. And slept soundly for a brief time.
Woke when I suddenly heard a sound. In the distance and muffled, though I hadn’t
imagined it. Two in the morning.
I listened carefully. Inside or out? Somewhere in the building? Or outside my door?
A voice talking. And another voice. Answering.
I quickly got out of bed. Had they found me already? Had Buster caved?
Slipping slowly off the bed, I crept over to the door and sneaked a look out. No one in
the hall. I closed the door, stuffed what was left of my groceries into the carryon, filled the
rest of the bag with the stuff I’d removed, and carried it back to the door. Glanced out. Still
no one there. But the talking had stopped.
I snuck into the hall and turned right. Away from the entrance to the building. When
I reached the end, I turned left and immediately found the staircase and another hallway with
more rooms. Which way?
I listened some more. Silence.
Buster hadn’t thought I could climb stairs. If she had given me up, then that would be
my best choice. And so I climbed, or mostly crawled my way slowly upward to the second
floor. When I arrived, I listened some more. This time I heard the same voices, though further
away. Who’d be up at two in the morning? College students?
I walked down the hallway and checked the doors. One. Two. Three. I struck pay dirt
on the fourth try. I opened the door to a room exactly like the one I’d just left. Another
vacancy. Apparently the recession had hit higher education harder than I’d thought.
I entered and closed the door quietly. Stood in the dark and listened for the voices.
I listened some more, trying to quiet my nerves and especially my breathing. The
haul up the stairs had been some exertion.
Then I saw something in the darkness. Against the wall in the room. Moving.
I prepared myself with an opening Bokator move. So did the dim image.
One scared dude, I thought. Both me and the guy in the mirror. I walked over to it
and looked in. The dim light helped. First time I’d seen one since the fight. I had a beard.
Flecked with gray here and there. The bruises I’d gotten were not as bad as I’d thought.
Actually healing nicely. The beard covered the worst of them around my jaw, where I’d lost
two teeth. It was still me in there. Beaten and bowed, but still me.
I moved my carryon over to the closet, opened its sliding door, and shoved the bag in.
And I climbed in after it, closing the door behind me. Not a great deceit. Except if they
figured I was on the ground floor, then they might skip being so conscientious when they
searched the second. Maybe it would work. Better tried than not.
And I waited. For the sound of voices. And my recognition of one or more of them.
Trying to decide whether or not to put up a fight. Ever battered as I still was, I could
certainly take one or two of them down. Maybe three before I passed out from the pain. Just
to make sure, I popped another pain pill into my mouth and swallowed it dry. Not pleasant,
but better than nothing.
While continuing to listen, I fell asleep again. I woke when the light around the edges
of the closet door began to brighten up the inside.
I listened carefully. Nothing. No voices. Only an occasional squeaking from the
heaters, warming up after a night of low temperatures. My paranoia had either saved me, or
lost me a couple of days off the end of my life.
I had a headache. No doubt the after effects of the dope I’d taken. Time for some
more, I thought. Then reconsidered. Didn't have to be a specialist to know what was
happening with that. Decided to suffer without.
Except no coffee. How was that going to work? Addicted to it. But hadn’t bought any.
No way to make it here. Even instant. Nobody could drink cold instant coffee. Not possible. I
could have eaten beans though. Should have remembered that.
Christ, I thought. Modern man. The first thing on my mind in the morning was dope.
If not one type, another.
I slowly got to my feet and tried to work the kinks out of my back and legs. I felt
okay in general. My wounds healing. And I’d survived nearly twenty-four hours since Patton
had tried to put me away. Forever.
I opened my cell door, as I liked to think of it, got out my supplies, and made myself
breakfast. Tuna and peanut butter. Actually not bad. I could certainly think of worse.
No voices. I glanced out into the parking lot. No cars. Not even Buster’s. She’d
apparently gone for breakfast. Or maybe down to the police station. Who knew?
I accomplished my morning ablutions with some difficulty. I’d forgotten what
peanuts, in any form, could do to one’s inner plumbing. But I made things work eventually
and prepared for another day on the lam.
I repacked my stuff including groceries and decided to find a phone. I’d give Saul a
call and see what we could work out. I hoped I hadn’t overestimated him. A lonely man. A
math professor. How could he be involved? Though I’d been surprised before.
I left my room nonchalantly, as if it were an everyday occurrence. Found the stairwell
and worked my way slowly down. Standing up the whole time. A first. At least since the
assault. When I reached the first floor, I stopped again and listened and looked. Nothing out
of the ordinary. When I walked to the front door I looked out. No cop cars. No Buster car. All
quiet. But I’d been wrong before, so took it slowly. One step at a time.
The sun was out in full force. Bright. Almost too bright. Wished I’d packed some
sunglasses. The snow sparkled as well, adding to the glare in my eyes. A whiteout. Hard to see
anything without squinting. I found the sidewalk and headed away from downtown. No
reason to invite disaster.
No one out and about. Too cold? Or just that I was still on campus during winter
break? No students anywhere.
Unfamiliar with this part of town, even though I was just a few blocks from my
apartment, I wandered around hoping for a likely spot for a telephone. The city had removed
phone booths long ago. My only hope was some kind of business. I found one. A mom and pop
dry cleaners on Main. Small. Homey. Warm. And run by two Asian women of advancing age. I
asked them about telephones nearby, and the younger of the two smiled and handed me one
from behind the counter. I asked for a phone book. She had one of those, too.
I looked up Saul’s number, got it, and dialed. The hum of the equipment in the back of
the cleaners was loud, so I nestled myself up against the front window as far as the cord
would let me and listened.
Saul picked up after the third ring.
“Saul Perlmutter,” he said calmly. No suspicion in his voice I could detect.
“Saul,” I said. “This is Will Francis.”
“Will,” he said, “thanks for calling. I didn’t expect it so soon.”
“I have a couple of ideas I like to run by you if you have a moment.”
“Sure. You want me to come by your place?”
“No, actually, they’re replacing the window in my kitchen. Making a lot of noise.
Would your place be okay?”
“Now would be a good time.”
“Sure. I’ll fix us some lunch.”
“Great. Where do you live?”
“Not too far from you. Maybe a mile.” I winced as he said it. I’d have to take four or
five pills to make it that far. But I needn’t have worried.
“And you don't have a car. I’ll pick you up in a couple of minutes.”
“Great. Though I’m not at home.”
“I’m at a cleaners down the street from my place. North.” And I read the name of the
place forwards from the backwards version inside the window to him.
“Sure. I know where that is. Be there in a second.”
And we disconnected.
So far so good. He seemed exactly as he had the day before. Open. Eager. Too eager?
I thanked the ladies and offered to pay for the use of their phone.
“Local?” one of them asked.
“No bother. But next time you need your clothes pressed, come by and see us.”
“You’ll have my lifetime business,” I told them. And left to wait outside for Saul to see
me. And, I hoped, wandering cops wouldn't see me.
I probably looked like a beat up homeless man at this point. Standing there all alone,
bearded and black and blue. With a small case for my possessions. Hell, by this point I felt like
a homeless person.
Before I could contemplate my situation further, Saul’s car pulled up to the curb and
he opened the passenger side door without getting out.
“Professor Francis,” he said as I crawled inside.
“Will,” I said.
And we drove north to his place.
I hated to leave Buster in the lurch. Not knowing where I’d gone. But I couldn’t trust
her, nor chance waiting for her to return from wherever she might be. The police station, for
Saul’s house, a one-story clapboard affair with plenty of front yard, looked like heaven
compared to the dormitory and even my apartment. He walked us inside and sat me down at
his dining room table. And off he went to his kitchen to finish making our meal. A menorah
stood unlit on a table near the doorway. I didn’t know much about such things, except they
had something to do with Hanukkah around Christmas.
His house was about as homey as it could be. Bookshelves everywhere and full of
books. Everything neat as a pin. Pictures of his wife, no doubt, placed here and there on the
walls. A few had small children in them. Their kids? Grandkids? It felt like someone’s home. A
lifetime of living here. A long time since I’d been in a place like this.
“Sorry to make you wait,” he said when he came back from the kitchen.
“Just admiring your dining room. It has a certain feeling of ‘home’ to it. I love it.”
“Thank you. Keep it this way in memory of my wife. She wouldn’t stand for me
leaving it like . . .”
“My place?” I finished his sentence for him.
“Not what I was going to say.”
“Doesn’t matter. Mine’s a dump. Never meant to be much of anything else. Here I get
the feeling of family and tradition. I miss that in some ways. Living the bachelor’s life
without ever having been married has it advantages. But as I sit here and look around, it has
many more disadvantages.”
He nodded his head as if he understood. Which he probably did.
And then we ate. Not sure what it was, though it sure beat tuna and peanut butter.
And bottled water. He also served wine. I’d literally forgotten the taste.
“So,” he said when we’d finished. “You have some ideas?”
What to say? Come clean and tell him the sordid story. Or continue the charade and
get back to our research? I chose the latter. At least for now. Until I could figure out what
role he played in the little melodrama that had engulfed me.
“Is non-linearity real or fiction?”
“That’s your idea?”
“No. That’s my question. I want to know. Your answer will lead to my idea.”
“Okay. Depends on what you mean by non-linearity. Essentially the word means not in
a line. So anything in an x,y coordinate system that’s not a line is non-linear. That’s real. Not
“I’m referring to formulas whose output is not directly proportional to its input.
Equations using exponents.”
“There are other definitions as well. Though now that I understand what you mean,
yes, non-linear equations do exist. They’re certainly not fiction. Why such a simple question?”
“Well, the output of such equations, however chaotic they may be, is infinite. Right?
Since we can’t test an infinite number system for anything but localized axioms and the like,
doesn’t it mean that chaos cannot really be proven?”
“Do you mean we can never test to see if in fact a repeating pattern doesn’t
eventually exist. That one may appear so far distant in output that we could never observe it?
Like pi, suddenly after a couple of trillion numbers, turns into endlessly repeating sixes?”
“A rather abstract question from a pragmatist.”
“How do you know I’m a pragmatist?” I could see he was enjoying our little bit of
“You’re a computer scientist, so I know you’re not a theoretical mathematician.
Computer scientists like output, not theories that may or may not produce output.”
“You’re right. That was a trial balloon. Let me try something more reasonably
associated to my project. Maybe you’ll see what I mean.”
“The second law of thermodynamics states that . . . “
“Hold it. That’s physics.”
“I know, but hear me out. It’s also math. Without stating the law verbatim, I’ll refer to
it as order moving toward disorder. The principle of the universe.”
“Okay. Simple enough.”
“I can’t pump cold order to a hot disorder. Heat moves in one direction only, and thus
the hotter volume, disorder, will always transfer to the cold one without reversibility.”
“Crude way to put it, but correct.”
“So, the universe began as perfect order and irreversibly continues toward complete
“Correct again,” he said.
“Yet I, and many of my colleagues, begin with equations producing disorder, the
primordial soup of life, and attempt to discover order. It’s a basic presumption that we can
produce order from disorder.”
“Sounds like an oxymoron. Yes?”
“Sure. I think we both have an answer for that, though I’d like to hear yours.”
“Mine’s easy. The second law of thermodynamics concerns the entire universe. The
momentary orderings that occur as a result of certain conditions in the disorder can create
temporary order without violating the larger second law of thermodynamics.” Good answer.
“My response would be slightly different. I would argue that any order produced
would only be contextual. In other words, it would still be far more complex than the starting
conditions, just ordered because it has more order than the disorder in which it exists.”
“Okay by me. So what’s the problem?”
“Life, at least human life, continues to try and find order in our environment, and I’m
talking about big order here. When the second law, which we all agree is absolute, prevents
that by forcing the environment and ourselves to become ever more disordered.”
“Only on the grand scale. Not necessarily on the local one.”
“Right. So the little ordered digital critters my students and I are attempting to
create from non-linear mathematics do not violate any of the basic laws of thermodynamics.”
“Not anymore than you or I do,” he said.
“Some disorderly stuff from the nonlinear functions must be more orderly.”
“Any equation that has one exponent larger than the number ‘1’ could be considered
non-linear. But we can fully predict what will come next in many sequences and therefore
they’re actually quite ordered. Like ‘y’ equals ‘x’ squared will produce 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, and so on,
as you move ‘x’ incrementally up from one. Non-linear, but predictable. Reversible from the
output to get the equation, but still non-linear.”
“Not talking about quadratics here.”
“Partial differential equations.”
“Whew. Primordial soup of the highest magnitude,” he said.
“Exactly. Can I find a PDE that would have more potential to eventually produce an
ordered result than another? And by what means could I tell that without testing it?”
“Whoa. Getting into serious math here. You sure you want to go there?”
“No. I want to know if what I’m asking is possible. Is there some kind of method you
know that will tell me that of the twenty equations I have, so and so will have the most likely
possibility of producing temporary order out of the chaos it initially produces before going
“Yes and no.”
“A bit vague,” I said.
“On purpose. It depends on what kind of representation you use. Forget PDEs for the
moment. Cellular automata? Yes. Certain types of initial rules and conditions produce chaotic
behavior with what could be defined as ‘bouts’ of temporary apparent order. Others show
order from the outset and are of no interest to you. Just looking at a PDE equation wouldn't
yield much unless you tested it by running it a few thousand million times.”
“Then you’ve answered my question.”
“In essence, is there any way I can reduce the infinite number of possible equations
for producing promising primordial soups to the few magical ones with higher probability
for creating chaos but eventual order. Do you see why I asked the questions in the way that I
“Now I do. So my answer is maybe. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the process
“Not much help,” I said, regretting it immediately. He overlooked it.
“It’s not an easy question. Even though it may seem so to you.”
“It doesn’t seem easy to me at all. I was hoping someone could help.”
“I could do some research. Remember, I’m an old math teacher in North Dakota,
mostly out of the mainstream of contemporary theories. I love reading the literature though.
Let me get back to you on that.”
“Thanks.” I paused for a second. Then added, “a lot!”
“Coffee?” he asked.
We washed the dishes in relative silence. Like I imagined he and his wife must have
done for decades. When we finished, darkness had set in and we migrated to his living room.
“Why are the police after you, Will?”
From left field.
“I didn’t know they were.”
“They came by earlier. Before you called. Asked if I knew where you were. I told them
the truth. I didn’t.”
“Right. Why didn’t you call them after I called you? Easy enough to turn me in.”
“True. Though I find you and your work interesting in many ways. Besides, I couldn't
imagine you doing anything illegal.”
“You don’t know me very well.”
“You mean they’re right?”
“No. I mean that I’ve done some illegal things in my life. Mostly in my youth. But I
still jaywalk now and again.”
“So you’re on the run, with literally everyone either after you or lying for some
“Sounds paranoid, I know.”
“It does. But I believe you.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Sleep here. If you’ll let me.”
“I will. Except what then?”
“I frankly don’t have a clue.”
“Things getting a bit chaotic?” he asked.
“Yes, though I’m hoping my personal equation will end up ordered and not more
We talked about his family for a time. After that we got down a blanket from the top
shelf of his hallway closet and made me a bed on his living room couch. And then, lights out.
I woke to the sound of nine ladies dancing. Actually, some kids on skateboards had
passed the house in a furious hurry to get somewhere. The sun was bright and the sky
apparently clear. I couldn’t see it, but I couldn't imagine storm clouds gathering, given the
skateboarders so interested in getting out of the house.
Saul was sitting by the front door as if waiting for someone. Et tu Brute? Had everyone
“How long?” I asked him.
“For the cops to arrive?”
“The cops you’re waiting for.”
“I’m waiting for the mailman. He comes around this time everyday. I still get much of
my mail hardcopy. Besides, he brings the Fargo paper. I’ve taken it since I got here forty
I felt like a turncoat.
“Sorry. I guess I’m suspicious of everyone these days.”
“Good to be that,” he said.
And it was. A problem. Then gone.
“How long do you usually wait?”
“For the mail? Depends. Typically not more than a half hour or so. Sometimes it’s here
before I sit down. Have to check first to make sure I’m not waiting for something that’s
I hadn’t thought about mail in a box being important for some time. Usually shoveled
what little I got directly into the trash.
“There is something, though.”
“I think you’ve got too many rules for life.”
“How many should there be?”
“Don’t know. Yours covers a lot. Though somehow, as you listed them for me, many
seem too obvious, with others left out. Can’t really tell you what though. Thought you might
like to know that. Give them some reconsideration.”
“Thanks. I will.”
The mail came then. And we ate breakfast quietly. Things clocked along like it must
have for most of the umpteen numbers of years he’d been on the planet.
I felt like myself again. Little pain. I could walk almost normally. And my face looked
pretty good, even with the beard I’d begun to like. Probably because it made me a little less
conspicuous to the powers that be. No more pain pills, I promised myself. Take the problem
by the horns. Stop letting things bother me. Make events happen, but not to me.
Just as I thought that, a North Dakota State Police car rumbled to a stop in front of
Perlmutter’s house. Damn. I’d trusted him.
I gathered my things from the couch, stuffed them into my carryon, and headed for
the back door.
“Where’re you going?” Saul asked.
“Cops are here,” I said. “Time to travel.”
“I didn’t call them,” he said. So innocently, I couldn’t imagine him lying.
“Let’s find out before you start running.”
“How about you talking to them, and I’ll hide in your garage.”
“Fine with me.”
“That door out the side of the kitchen?”
“Go for it.”
And I did. Out the door and into the darkness. Smelled like oil, gasoline, dead grass,
and wood chips. Just like my parent’s garage had when I was a kid.
I closed the door behind me. Completely trapped now. The big garage door was
automatic. No way for me to open it from the inside without an opener. Couldn’t find that in
the dark. No other way to get out except through the kitchen access I’d just come through,
and that’s where they’d be expecting me. All I could do was wait. Couldn’t hear a thing. Not
even from outside. The place had insulation in all the places insulation should be. Probably
would have made a good recording studio.
Time passed. If he’d ratted on me, he’d have sent them for me by now. He must be
trying to get rid of them. Or letting them search the house. I figured it might be a good idea
to hide behind his car in case they asked to see the garage.
Lucky I did, for not a minute passed before the door to the kitchen opened. I heard
voices in midsentence, and the door closed again. I supposed they’d taken a token look after
finding no one was in the house.
Several minutes passed, and then Saul opened the door and said I could come out.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Mobility, evolution, and specialization,” he said.
“Huh?” I wasn’t at all sure I’d heard him correctly.
“Mobility, evolution, and specialization,” he said again.
“What does that mean?”
“The Three Laws of Life,” he said.
“No, I mean what did the police want?”
“To know if you were here.”
“What do you think? I told them you weren’t.”
“And they didn’t believe you?”
“They didn’t. Wanted to search the house. I figured that if I told them no, it would
make them more suspicious. So I agreed. I hoped you’d hide, and if they got too curious I
could always yell ‘fire,’ or something.”
“Don’t thank me. This is too much fun. I’m getting the sweeter end of the stick.”
“I’m glad you think that. Most of my other so-called friends don’t see it that way.”
He had no response.
“They say anything else?” I asked.
“About progress in the case. Anything new happen?”
“Nope. Just checking out my place.”
“Three Rules of Life?” I asked him.
“You said something about the Three Rules of Life.”
“No. The Three Laws of Life. Like the Three Laws of Robotics. You know. Isaac
“Okay. The Three Laws of Life.”
“Mobility, evolution, and specialization,” he said for a third time. The first time I really
“Don't you think that’s a bit too open ended?”
“Maybe, but it’s a lot better than your eleven rules of life.”
I stared at him dumbfounded. The eleven rules of life. I’d never counted them. Exactly
eleven. I felt like kissing him on the lips. Somehow, I held my temptation in check. Eleven.
Problem solved. Maybe.
“You all right?” he asked me.
“Yes. Just something you reminded me of. Nothing important.”
He continued our discussion. “Well, I left off birth, death, eating, excreting, things like
that. I can visualize life without those things. Not on earth, maybe, but life nonetheless.
Though I can’t imagine life unable to move. Not being able to evolve to outwit its
environment. And, though I don't like to think it’s true, life certainly specializes in certain
ways. Individual genius can do many things. Life continues to strengthen, however, because
we specialize in things, so we can survive as a species.”
“I can think of lots of life that doesn’t move.”
“Mold, for example.” I said.
“It grows. Everything grows. That’s movement isn’t it?”
“I guess it could be considered so.”
“Anyway, think it over. Either way, you’ve got too many rules, and you’re trying to
cover too much ground. I figure somewhere in there you’re going to include things like
murder, lying, and things like that.”
Jesus. Had he thought that through? The two things that were trailing after me like a
tail I never thought I had.
“I will. Promise.”
“Let’s eat,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
The next morning I awoke not hearing ten lords a-leaping. But they no doubt were.
Somewhere at least. I was up early, though not early enough to beat Saul. We ate breakfast
and I told him that I couldn’t put him at risk for harboring a fugitive any longer. I forced him
to take a few bucks to help pay for the food I’d eaten. Told him what a great guy he’d been to
have faith in me, packed my bag, and was out the door before noon. And, of course, the sky
was clouding up. Another storm on its way no doubt. Just when it looked like it was getting
I had no idea what to do. Where to go. Who to trust. Maybe I could catch a bus out of
town. No. They’d have that covered as well as the trains. No airports for a hundred miles in
any direction. Three hotels in town, but they’d have those covered, too.
That’s when it occurred to me. The last place they’d think I’d go was right back where
I’d begun. Home. My apartment down the street. Close by. At least I could go there and see if
they had the place guarded by cops. If not, and I kept the lights off at night and didn’t leave
during the day, it might work. Worth a try.
I took the back way. It felt good to be charging ahead again. Not running away. My
body actually felt like its old self. No more limping. No more feeling sorry for myself. Time
to take the initiative.
When I came around the rear of my apartment complex, I noticed him immediately.
Damn. They still had it covered. A uniform out back. Probably one out front as well. So many
policeman wasting their time looking for an innocent bystander. Who’d done nothing wrong.
I was right back to square one.
Then it occurred to me that maybe I had that wrong. If I could wait until after dark, I
might find an inner corridor and make my way past the guards and inside. Once there, they’d
never think to look for me in my own apartment. After all, how could I get in there without
them seeing me? And why would I want to go there anyway?
So I found a good place to hide and, unseen, spent the rest of the day wishing I’d
stayed with Saul until dark to avoid all the wasted time. And it passed slowly. But finally,
shortly after the sun disappeared, a cop, the only one I could see, was relieved by a
newcomer. On the young side. Rather than move to avoid the oncoming snow and wind, he
tended toward huddling in one place, looking around once in awhile, though without much
Around eight, I found the right corridor, made my way down it as if it were nothing
more than a routine return to my apartment, avoided either of the two cops, and entered my
apartment with my key like nothing unusual at all. I closed the door behind me as quietly as I
could. Locked it, breathed a deep sigh of relief and, knowing I couldn’t turn on the lights,
worked my way toward the kitchen. I knew the moves to get there.
“Miss the old place?”
The voice was unmistakable. Patton. The son of a bitch had me figured to a tee. The
light by the couch clicked on and there he sat. Sipping a shot glass of my Beam. Damn his
hide. He couldn’t just catch me. He had to steal my liquor, too.
“Patton.” All I could think of saying.
“Francis.” All he could think of saying.
“I don’t have to guess why you're here.” And I put my wrists together in front of me
to make it easy for him to cuff them.
“Sit down, you fool.”
So I did.
“How’d you know I’d come back here?”
“Where else would you go? We knew you’d find a couple of places. Students. Friends
like Saul. However, sooner or later you’d run out of your welcomes. This had to be the place.
You’d figure we had the buses, trains, and planes, if there were any, covered. I somehow don’t
see you as the hitch-hiking type. Where else was there?”
“I guess. Don't you want to take me in?”
“Sure. But let’s talk first. Want some of your liquor?”
“Might as well. Before you empty the bottle.”
“Just celebrating. The guys outside radioed that you were on your way. No reason to
let this stuff go to waste.”
He poured me a shot glass full and passed it over.
“You’re looking a lot better now. Home cooking will do it. That must have been some
fight.” He looked pleased as he said it.
“Who got the getter of it? Really.”
“Only one of us walked away. Surprised you didn’t find his body.”
“Oh, but we did. Only not that night.”
“You found the guy?”
“Yep. Dead. Like you said.”
“Oh great. Another murder charge.”
“Yeah, though not on you,” Patton said.
“Someone put a bullet in his forehead.”
“I didn’t kill him after all?”
“Nope. Not unless you can bi-locate. You have a pretty good alibi for when the medics
say he got nailed. You sure he didn’t best you?”
“I’m not exactly sure of anything right now.” And I drank the bourbon down in one
gulp. Then coughed.
“Here’s the interesting part, though,” Patton continued.
“What’s that? Besides the fact that I’m not implicated.”
“He’s not from around here.”
“He’s from the middle east somewhere. His papers, which they interestingly left on his
body, said something about a ‘stan.’”
“One of those ‘stans’ over there. You know, Afghanistan, Turkestan, Pakistan. One of
“You’re suggesting he’s a terrorist?”
“Don’t know. What do you think?”
“Would explain a few things,” I said.
“I don’t know. Say, listen, shouldn’t I have my lawyer present? The PD. Your brother
“No. I’m not here officially. Didn’t present my badge to you. Didn’t identify myself to
you. None of that stuff.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Explaining a few things that I thought you should know.”
“That whoever’s doing this are terrorists?”
“You made that assumption. Not me. What the hell would terrorists be doing here?
What do we have, or even North Dakota have, that would interest terrorists for Christ’s sake?“
“I don’t know. Something about my work?”
“What about your work?” he asked.
“You’ve got me. Most of the time it fails. Even when it succeeds I can’t imagine
anyone but a few professionals being interested in it. I publish everything that’s worthwhile.
Anyone can see it. Why kill someone over something you can have for free?”
“Don’t ask me, Francis. How would I know? It’s your research.”
“Well, there you have it. It must be something else.”
“You piss anyone off lately. Ouch. I take that back. You piss everyone off. Let me put
it another way. You piss anyone off recently I don’t know about? Like maybe some guy from
the middle east?”
“Never saw the guy before. Can I have another shot?”
“Sure.” And he poured me another one, full to the brim.
“Thanks.” I emptied it. Again in one gulp. Felt better going down this time.
“So what now?” I asked.
“Let’s keep talking.”
“Anything that comes to your mind.”
“Did Jackson really tell you Cassie and I were talking about knocking him off?”
“No. He didn’t tell me anything at all. He wasn’t there when I told you that.”
“You made it up?”
“For God’s sake why?”
“I needed you to run, Francis. I needed to see where you’d go when you thought
everyone you had confidence in had turned on you.”
“Two reasons, actually. I wanted to see if you would give away the someone who put
you up to all this. Or, I wanted to make you a target. See who’d follow you. Catch them. See,
either way I win.”
“And Cassie. She never said that . . .”
“Nope. She doesn’t know we had our little conversation. I knew you’d run, Francis.
After all you didn’t really have any choice.”
“So Jackson doesn’t know anything about this?”
“He does now. Come on out, Jackson.”
And Jackson stepped out of my bedroom with a kind of dumb look on his face.
“I didn’t know anything about this until after he did it,” Jackson said. “Until he told
me. And he made me promise I’d stay out of things, or he’d put me in the same cell he’d had
“Small town cops,” I said. “Think they can do anything and get away with it.”
“Damn right,” Patton said. “And it was a neat trick, don't you think?”
“Not the target part. I could’ve been killed.”
“Not a chance. If these guys wanted to kill you, they would’ve done it as you walked
up to your building at the U that day so long ago. They need you. I hoped they’d get
exasperated and kidnap you or something.”
“You were hoping for that?”
“Damn right. I’d follow them, and we’d have something. Not like now. Now all I’ve got
“Then you’re short of the mark, Patton. Way short.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So you’re not going to take me to jail?”
“Why should I? You’re out on bail. You didn’t leave town.”
“You mean I’m still a target?”
“Not in the way you mean it. If you’re asking if I hope they kidnap you, damn right I
do. I figure that’s about the only way this is going to work. They’ve holed up somewhere. I
don’t have a clue where. And I don't have the manpower or the weather cooperating with me
now. So I’m pulling the officers off your place here and you can go about your business. Of
course your court date for mid-January is still on. The hearing. Joe will keep you informed of
“You’re not looking so bad, Will,” Jackson said.
“No thanks to you. Why didn’t you find me and tell me he’d lied?”
“He had me boxed in. Really. I had no idea where you were.”
“And you didn’t want to go to jail.”
He smiled in a kind of idiot way.
“Isn’t there something for me to sue you over, Patton? For lying to me about all this?”
“The word of an accused murderer against a policeman of many years good standing?
Whose brother is the public defender and also your lawyer? How’s that going to play out?”
“And you’d lie?”
“Of course I would. What do you think, I’m a moron?”
“Was Saul a part of this, too?”
“No. Though we made sure not to look closely in the garage. We didn’t want to find
you. Hoped you’d stay there a few more days. But no, you had to come back home. What a
I stared at him. What a crapshoot. All that running. All of my second-guessing. When I
could be working on my research. Waste of time. Damn his eyes.
“Damn your eyes, Patton.”
“Best you can do, Francis?”
Nothing to add to that.
And he left us. Jackson back in my apartment. Me home. The cops gone. The man I’d
fought dead. Not from me. From a bullet in the forehead. Then I realized there was one
upside. Cassie hadn’t lied to him. She’d never been involved at all. I wondered if she’d called.
“Did I get any calls while I was gone?”
“Sure. Plenty of them.”
“Plenty of them?”
“Ten at least.”
“Who were they from?”
“That’s the strange part.”
“They’re all from the same person. I think she’s getting pissed. Thinks you don’t want
to talk with her anymore.”
After Patton left, I called Cassie at her home. She answered immediately. One ring. I
told her I was sorry for not calling her back. I wasn’t sure she believed me at first, but she
came around. Especially when I had Jackson take the phone and verify what had happened. So
we worked through things and agreed to see one another that night around nine at her place.
I’d take the bus since Jackson no longer had a car.
By that time it had begun snowing again. Heavily.
After we ate tuna from cans and had a few beers, I told Jackson I’d had it. No more
taking a back seat in this mess. I had a few skills. I’d find the guys responsible and put an end
to this business, one way or another.
Not sure by the time I said that whether it was me or the beer talking. However, for
the moment at least, I meant it.
Eleven Pipers Piping I thought as I woke in my own bed for the first time in several
days. I felt good. Actually good. Ready for normal activity.
I met Jackson at the breakfast table and we cooked the last of the eggs from our week
ago visit to the supermarket. They’d been marked ‘eat before’ two days previous. I didn’t
care. I drank my coffee and felt my own little taste of freedom. Even though I knew my time
would soon be cut short by a summons for the first hearing in my double murder trial.
As we ate, I asked Jackson, since he’d lived here longer than I, where he would hide if
he didn’t want to be seen. Maybe that’s where my antagonists were.
“You mean in what building?”
“Well, half the buildings in town are university property, and this whole thing began
when classes were still in session. So it wouldn’t be anywhere there. A lot of the rest of the
buildings in town are county owned, like the police station, courthouse, and so on. Then there
are restaurants. Not much room in them. As for the rest of the businesses, some are vacant
due to the recession. I suppose one of those would do. Nothing much else comes to mind.”
“What about those businesses? Any of them out off the beaten track? Someplace people
wouldn't normally pass by?”
“A couple. The old refinery, for example. That’s out on Morgan Road. An old
washboard dirt trail would be more like it. No one wants their shocks blown to bits. The
sign’s full of old buckshot wounds and a lot of the road has come apart at the seams. The
refinery’s eighty years old, and for the last thirty it’s just been standing there empty.”
“Think someone could be hiding out there?”
“Not likely. Heat would be a factor for sure. Unless they’ve made some serious
renovations. Even then, the roof is so full of holes that smoke or other residue from the
heating system would show themselves to the neighbors. Bring more than their share of
curiosity about that. I doubt Patton wouldn’t know about it after a day or so.”
“Old Mango’s place out on County Road 57. It’s out of the way. Not big. But it could
hide maybe ten people. If they didn’t mind smelling one another too much.”
“A chief of a local tribe. Pretty interesting guy I always thought. He owned the
property before he died of old age. Ninety, I think.”
“I guess. Pretty close quarters though. Certainly a few people could get by there for a
time. Again, though, a fire would bring attention to the place. Somebody would surely
“Alright. How about outside of town?”
“How far outside?”
“Say twenty miles radius. To start with.”
“Lots of abandoned houses. Again, broken down and mostly visible from major
highways. There’s the old warehouse on Siliphant.”
“Old warehouse. Sounds interesting.”
“It’s big, fairly new, and well fenced. You could fit an army in there and no one would
notice. Too far from the main drags and other farmhouses for anyone to care.”
“Have a name?”
“The Old Warehouse.”
“That its name?”
“Yep. Its formal name. Even when it was new.”
“What did they keep in there?”
“No idea. Most people guess old farm equipment and the like. Tractors, trucks, that
kind of thing.”
“Is there a way in without being seen.”
“Lots of ways I would guess. Haven’t been out that direction in a couple of years. But
it’s surrounded by a forest. Get to the edge of that forest in a car and creep up on it during
the day crawling, or by night using darkness as cover.”
“How long to get there?”
“By car? Twenty minutes maybe.”
“Buses don’t go that way. Unless they’ve changed their routes in the last couple of
years. Nobody goes there. The road dead ends, and most of the neighboring farms have given
up the ghost.”
“Sounds like a perfect spot for our visitors.”
“If I got us a car, would you come along?”
“And do what?”
“Find it. Check it out.”
“And what if that’s where they’re hiding?”
“Then we come back and report it to Patton.”
“What if they catch us?”
“I don't know. Don’t let them catch us, I guess.”
“Forget it, Francis.”
“I think it’s time to take action rather than sit on my butt. And you’re involved, too.
They ransacked your house and blew up your car.”
“True, but I’m not dumb enough to let them blow a hole through my forehead.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Forget it, Francis.”
Instead, I went to my bedroom and called Buster. She was in.
“Buster. This is Professor Francis.”
“Where have you been? I’ve been worried.”
“I changed places to sleep. Sorry. I didn’t have time to tell you. Say, can you talk to
the others and set up a meeting in the lab for this evening around seven or so?”
“Jeez. I suppose so. We’re all going to be there anyway. Can I tell them what it’s
“Just that it’s important.”
“Wow. Okay. You alright, Doc?”
“I’m very alright, Buster. And thanks again for putting me up. And putting up with
me. It was great of you to do that.”
“Not a problem. We’ll be ready at seven.”
I thought it all through carefully. Sketchy, true, but I was taking the initiative for the
first time and it felt right. I hoped I’d feel the same way in twenty-four hours.
I looked at the clock. Still early afternoon. I came out of the bedroom. Everything was
fine. Except no Jackson. I tried to remember. He was here, wasn’t he? I would have bet my life
To hell with the pipers. Not a good day at all. My temporary roommate had
disappeared. Again. Kidnapped? Why him and not me?
And he walked in the front door as if nothing were wrong.
“Where’ve you been?”
“Jesus, Will, you my keeper now?”
“Where’d you go?”
“Out, Mom. Out.”
“But you don’t have a car.”
“I do now.”
“Where’d you get a car?”
“Rent a Heap. Or something like it. That used car dealership across from the police
station. They’re open during the break. A ’56 Buick. Five bucks a day. I figure we’ll only need
it today. You can pay me when you get your bail money back.”
“A car, Francis. You know, those things with four wheels that you drive around in.”
“A ’56 Buick?”
“It runs. It’ll get us to where you want to go. And back, too. If we’re still alive.”
“I need some coffee,” I said.
“What changed your mind?” I asked him.
“Not sure. Maybe something you said. Bull by the horns kind of thing. Got me excited.
Maybe we can end this thing today.”
“Or it, us.”
I pulled a cup out from the coffee maker and drank it in one steadfast swallow. He’d
ground the beans fresh. What a guy. I felt better already.
“So we have a car, when do we leave?” he asked.
“Christ, Jackson, give me a second to put this together. How about a late lunch first.”
“Sure. But I’m anxious to hit the road. Get the bastards.”
“You’re convinced they’re there?”
“After thinking about it, I don’t see where else they could be. Off the beaten path.
Large enough place. May have heat. Perfect spot. I’d choose it. If I were a criminal, of course.”
And so we ate leftovers and drank more coffee. I’d be happy when my diet changed. I
like tuna, though enough is damn well enough.
Around two, we left the apartment and, for the first time, I got a view and a whiff of
the ’56 Buick. Quite something. Dark blue on top, and white on the bottom. A two-tone job.
Sat low to the ground and had a couple of cracks in the windows. But, as I found out quickly,
it ran. And didn’t make too much noise. I loved these guys. The little portholes along the
sides of the engine compartment were not to be believed.
“Wouldn’t a car like this be a collector’s item?” I asked him.
“Would if any of the moving parts were original. I’m sure they’ve been replaced
several times over in the past sixty years.”
“But what about the body. Wouldn’t that be worth something?”
“Look at it closely. By the time you could make it pristine enough to convince
someone to buy it, it would have cost you more than you could get for it.”
“That leaves the question of how the hell it’s lasted so long in North Dakota?”
“Hasn’t. It’s spent its life in Florida. Believe it or not, the original owners moved here
from the orange state and sold it to the Rent a Wreck place. Who would move from Florida to
“Me. I love this place.”
He looked at me strangely.
“Yeah. Guess I do, too. Something about the free and open spaces. And the weather.
Never a dull moment.”
“True. At least for us.”
I looked around before we left. No sign of Patton’s minions huddling in the corners
keeping an eye on us.
Jackson drove and headed out of town. He knew where he was going. I surely didn’t.
“Shouldn’t we stop first?” I asked him.
“Don't know. Buy a gun maybe. Some ammo. Maybe a blackjack or two. Something to
defend ourselves with.”
“Guns mean shooting, Francis. Let’s hope it doesn’t get that far. I plan for a look see,
not a rendezvous. If we get anywhere close to the latter, a gun or two on our side won’t make
much difference to what I imagine their firepower would be.”
It made sense. Maybe he’d spent some time thinking this through.
We drove out of town and into low scrub. With the belching smoke out our exhaust, I
imagined we could be seen for miles. But soon the trees upped in height and we disappeared
into a regular forest of pines. I’d lived in my little university town for several years, but had
never thought to go this way. Quite beautiful in its own rights.
“How far?” I asked.
“Another ten minutes should put us at the end of the access road. We hide the car and
approach on foot.”
“Were you in the army, Jackson?”
“Two years,” he said. “Not long enough to see any action. Although I know a little
about what I’m doing.” And he apparently did.
This had happened so fast that by the time we arrived, stopped the car, driven into
the forest, and parked, I was quite apprehensive.
“I wish we had something to defend ourselves with.”
“Think of it this way, Francis, violence begets violence. If we had something like that
and were caught, we’d represent a threat to them. They’d have to do something. Way it is
now, if they catch us we’re no threat at all. I doubt they’ll shoot us on sight. Especially not
“Why not me?”
“Because I agree with what you’ve been saying. You’re what they’re after. You got me
why they haven’t grabbed you before this. So many opportunities. But, whatever, they
haven’t. So as long as I’m with you, I consider myself safe. At least safer than I’d feel if we had
Made sense. Sort of. I still would have preferred something. Maybe a baseball bat?
We climbed out of the car and covered it with dead branches, leaves, and whatever
else we could find to make it less obvious. It wouldn’t really help much, unless someone
wasn’t paying attention. At the same time, who’d expect a car covered in forest detritus out
here in no man’s land?
“Okay, Will, you take the far side of the road and I’ll take this side.”
“Shouldn’t we stay together?”
“We’ll still be together. Just apart. Remember, a single target is easier to eliminate
than two separate ones.”
I didn't much like his calling us a ‘target’ or his use of the word ‘eliminate,’ but the
idea made sense.
“Don’t we need a sign of some kind?” I asked.
“You mean a secret sign that only we know?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will, we can see one another. Just wave. Or silently mouth what you want to tell me.
We’ll do fine.”
So we took our positions and slowly made our way north toward what I hoped would
eventually reveal a building. Large enough, warm enough, and hidden enough to satisfy the
The weather cooperated. An occasional snowflake from a passing cloud. Nothing
approaching a storm of any kind. Cold, though no real wind. The sun was bright, but not
warm really. We’d both worn dark overcoats and, by accident or fate, blended into our
surroundings pretty well. In fact, I occasionally lost visual contact with Jackson, although I
then picked him up again as he moved forward.
We made slow progress. As we did, we noticeably slowed our pace. Or rather he did. I
followed suit. Apparently we were near the warehouse now, though I still couldn’t see a
Without warning, I nearly stepped out of the forest into the meadow in which stood a
two-story metal warehouse, just as Jackson had described.
Too close, I thought. They must have people surveilling the perimeter.
I turned toward Jackson and saw him thumbing in the direction we’d come. And then
he pushed both his hands palms down, towards the ground. Retreat and gain cover. His had
been the right approach all along.
I backtracked behind a large oak stand and flattened myself behind it. I could still see
the warehouse and most of the open meadow around it. I was also lying on ice. Even with my
many coats on, I could feel the bitter cold against my chest.
And we waited to see if anything moved. If anyone gave themselves away. And we
waited some more. Ten minutes passed. Nothing. At least that I could see. Apparently the
same for Jackson, as he’d made no motions toward me. No special sign, whatever that might
The building looked empty. Of course, from this distance it could have been full of
wild gorillas without me knowing the difference. All I wanted was some kind of motion. A
shadow. A light going on or off. A sound, even a soft one. But nothing suggested that the
place was occupied, or that anyone stood guard to defend the perimeter.
We waited another half hour. Still nothing. A waste of time? Who knew?
Then, out of nowhere, a motion. I was sure of it. Jackson. He was waving for me to
move a little closer. We crept up toward the place, but still behind cover. Scare them to death
maybe. Ten more yards of forest covered and a better view of the building and surrounding
open area. Still no explicit sign of occupation.
We waited some more. As we did, I noticed something strange. Voices. Or at least I
thought as much. Several of them in fact. Like a radio in the distance. But no music. Couldn’t
be sure what I was hearing, though certainly foreign to the forest in which we lay. Not birds,
or frogs, or God only knew what nature provided in this cold forsaken place.
Jackson gave me the thumbs up sign. I returned it. Something was happening. Not to
us, but because of us. Progress? Who knew? A lone watchman getting paid minimum wage
listening to a radio talk show? Or terrorists making plans to destroy the world? Or any of the
possibilities that lay between those two extremes?
I gave my shoulders an up-down motion. The universal what-the-fuck sign. Jackson
smiled and returned to looking and listening. I did the same.
Then I knew we’d hit pay dirt. A shadow clipped the lower corner of one of the
windows. I was sure of it. I looked over at Jackson. He’d clearly seen it, too. The watchman
stretching his legs? Or one of the terrorists getting a better angle on us? To knock us off one
by one with his long-range rifle?
Jackson mouthed something at me. Exaggerating his silent pronunciation of each
word to make himself completely understood. Problem was, no matter his ridiculous
machinations, I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was trying to say. Again I gave the
universal what-the-fuck sign. He shook his head and waved once toward the warehouse. The
universal go-get-yourself-shot sign.
So we moved closer. I still couldn’t see anyone guarding the warehouse outside. The
windows were opaque. At least to us on the outside. No way for us to see inside except for
shadows appearing on the windows.
The voices had gotten louder though. I still couldn't make out any words. Probably
not a radio talk show. No music for commercials. And occasional long pauses. At least two
people were in there. Making the watchman less likely. If the place were empty, who needed
two to guard it? In fact, I thought, who needed one to guard it?
I looked to Jackson for guidance. What to do next? He had nothing to suggest. In fact,
he looked like he’d forgotten I was there. How to get his attention if he weren’t looking? We
hadn’t covered that.
I got up on one knee. That got his attention. He pushed his palms downward,
indicating I should lie back down. I didn’t. Somehow the place didn’t seem particularly
threatening. Not that I would have stood up and waved my hands. Though I couldn’t see
anyone noticing me on one knee anymore than me lying flat. Besides, the voices went on
uninterrupted. Certainly if I’d been spotted there would be a pause, or a quickening, or
something to indicate a break in routine. But the patter continued as if nothing had
And we waited. No more shadows. Talking continued with intermittent breaks. And
we waited some more. Closing in on four in the afternoon. Three hours before my scheduled
meeting with the grad students. I decided to take a chance.
Without signaling Jackson, I turned and crawled my way back to a point where the
road narrowed. Once there, I lay flat on my stomach and pulled my way slowly across the
road. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter. It took about five minutes to make the journey.
I figured no one could have seen me do it. Not even Jackson.
Once across, I crawled normally up toward his position. Easier target or not, I wanted
this ridiculous non-code code to stop. We had to make some kind of logical plan. I had things
to do. Places to go. And the molasses-slow progress we were making was driving me crazy.
I found him where he’d been before leaving my position.
“What?” he whispered.
“We’ve got to do it or not do it. Nothing’s going to happen unless we make it happen.”
He nodded. “What, then?”
“I say we go around back and creep up on the place and see what we can hear. They
don’t appear to have any lookouts in the meadow.”
“Not seeing any doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
“Agreed. But this is slowly becoming hopeless otherwise.”
And so we backtracked further into the woods and crawled our way towards the rear
of the warehouse. We made as little noise as possible, and every ten seconds or so stopped to
make sure that all remained the same as it had been. It did.
Finally, and with plenty of scratches to prove it, we found ourselves approximately
one hundred and eighty degrees opposite of our former lookout positions.
The voices continued. No shadows. No sign of lookouts.
“I say we lay on our stomachs and inch our way to a spot under that window there,” I
said, expecting him to disagree. He didn’t. He nodded.
We decided not to look up unless danger was imminent. And I would go first in single
file. After all, they wouldn’t shoot me. Supposedly.
I flattened myself as close to the ground as possible and dogpaddled across the
meadow. Maybe thirty yards between me and the building. Maybe ten minutes in full view of
anyone taking notice. It took forever. I felt like a first-time stripper in a club full of leering
men. I thought I could intuitively detect anyone watching, but that was a fallacy. For every
little move made, it felt like a thunderous and obvious action that everyone inside could hear
and see no less anyone outside. Interminable.
But we made it. Safely. And Jackson pulled up alongside of me. Right under the
largest window on the backside of the building. I could easily hear them talking now. Still
difficult to understand exactly what they were saying though. The voices were muffled.
Something about the acoustics. Or the language used. I couldn’t be sure.
We lay there for a couple of minutes to make sure we hadn’t been detected. I looked
at Jackson as if to say ‘what now?’ He scrunched his shoulders. Didn’t have any ideas either.
Neither of us had the slightest notion why we’d come this far. We certainly wanted to know
who was here. Maybe catch a few glimpses of them for future identification. But neither of
these things was possible. They weren’t going to make this easy on us. No one inside
apparently had any reason to come outside. And we wouldn’t want that anyway. We weren’t
that inconspicuous. If they’d opened the window above us, it would’ve helped. Though that
too would have caught us in the act. We couldn’t turn around and crawl back the way we’d
come. Neither he nor I had figured we’d get this far. Now that we were here, what to do?
That particular problem solved itself.
A familiar voice I couldn’t quite place spoke above me. “Make one move and you’re
toast.” Perfect English.
I didn’t move. Nor did Jackson, I presumed. I could no longer see him.
“Now, Francis, move only your head to the left ninety degrees. Slowly. Very slowly.”
He knew my name. The jig was up as they say. I felt as foolish as I had in high school
when a teacher had caught me and a girl whose name I couldn’t remember smooching behind
some curtains in the cafeteria during lunch. But the stakes were significantly higher here.
I turned my head and found myself looking not into my enemy’s face, but directly
into the two barrels of a something- something-gauged shotgun. Jackson had told me they
wouldn’t kill me. He hadn't known what he was talking about.
I waited for the holder of the shotgun to order me to stand up or something. But he
kept still for a minute. As if weighing his options. Shoot me and get it over with, or beat me
That’s when I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. The shotgun.
Jesus. Was this it? Just like Julia, except up close and personal?
“Say your prayers,” the man said. That voice. Who was it? Who cared?
And then a monstrous ‘click,’ so loud that it briefly deafened me. I closed my eyes and
waited for my life to end. Somehow it didn’t. No blast of gunpowder or the smell of spent
shots. No pellets banging around in my noggin. I took a deep breath. What was that all about?
“Shit,” the voice said. “I forgot to load both barrels. I think the other one’s ready
though. So here it comes.” I heard the trigger again. Pulling back same as before. And again I
waited for the inevitable. Closed my eyes. My heart thumped faster and harder than I’d ever
felt it before. Even when the girl whose name I couldn’t remember kissed me full on the
mouth that day so long ago.
But it didn’t come.
“Open your eyes, Will.”
I did. And couldn’t believe what I saw kneeling above me. Patton. The son of a bitch
was having fun with me. Or was he? Could he be the leader of this gang? Had he been pulling
the strings all along? It sure would make sense.
“Sit up. The both of you!” he ordered.
We did, though apparently not fast enough.
“Get up now, Jackson. How could you let this brainless idiot talk you into something as
fool as this?”
Jackson was smart enough to keep his mouth shut.
Patton, I now noticed, was wearing his uniform. Pressed and badged. As formal as it
“You two are pathetic, you know that? We had you pegged about an hour ago.
Thought it might be fun to see how you managed to do whatever you planned.”
“Hoped we might be able to accomplish something you haven’t been able to so far,” I
said, and then shut up as I saw the look on his face.
“By crawling up on a vacant building and doing what? You’re not armed. Thank God.
Or I’d put you back behind bars.”
“Told you so,” Jackson said, apparently speaking to me.
“Shut up, Jackson,” Patton fired back. “I should take you back to your little cell,
Francis. On the principle of the thing. But I can’t really figure out your crime here. Maybe
“I give up,” I said. “How do we know you’re not the one who’s been murdering
I looked behind him. Six more fully uniformed men ready to take on the local militia.
They didn’t look like a group of terrorists to me.
“I suppose you don’t. But what do I care? I got the munitions and you’ve got nothing.”
Right, of course.
“So, what now?” I asked him.
“Stand up!” he ordered us.
“Just for your information. And to make you feel a little bit better. They were here
awhile back. They left. We’ve been waiting for them to return. No luck. Until, of course, you
too jokers showed.”
“When did they leave?”
“Now that’s a bit hard to figure, Francis. Probably around the time they killed Julia
Robbins. Be my guess from the state of the place. Dust on things. Dates on food cartons.
Things like that.”
“You said they killed Julia.”
“I did, didn’t I. A slip of the tongue.”
“You don’t believe I did it at all. Why am I out on bail then? Why are you going to
“I told you before. You don’t listen. I have a job to do. I take the evidence and present
it to the prosecutor. Between the two of us we figure whether we have a case or not. Not my
job to use instinct as a measure of truth. Okay? Have that down now?”
“Okay. You two can do me a big favor. Stop trying to do my job for me. Get lost. That
is, until your court date, Francis. And Jackson, keep this guy from talking you into things.
Any kind of things. Okay?”
Jackson nodded. And we slinked back down the long entranceway toward the hidden
Buick. Walking this time. We didn’t talk much. The afternoon pretty much a bust. Not a lot to
“At least we know they’re getting close,” Jackson said, as we headed back toward my
apartment in the ’56 Buick.
“How do you figure that?”
“Well they’re at least one step ahead of us.”
“That means they’re getting close?”
He went silent. We were both in a bad mood.
When we got back to the apartment, I noticed that the cops were back on duty. With
smirks on their faces. I could almost hear them telling themselves, “amateurs.” No big deal. In
fact, that fit our actions perfectly.
We went inside and I noticed it was ten past six. Just enough time to change clothes,
eat some tuna, drink a bit of coffee, and walk to my lab. Along the way I also had to think
about what great wisdom I could impart to my group on how to solve our current dilemma.
About time I figured something out.
And so I worked on the first three of my tasks. Changing, eating, and drinking coffee.
The rest would have to wait. Maybe until I opened my mouth. My mind was on other things
Neither Jackson nor I had much to say to one another during dinner. Following that I
let him get back to the TV while I changed clothes. Things were improving, I thought.
Maybe we were getting to the heart of it. Patton seemed to have things in hand. At least as
well as things could be in hand.
I finished changing, donned several coats, and headed out the door.
“No idea when I’ll be back,” I told Jackson as I left.
“No worry. Take your time.” He shouted back at me.
He’d looked worn out from our morning’s do. Needed some downtime.
As I walked to the computer science building, I noticed clouds forming in the west.
By the light of the descending silvery crescent moon, no less. Another storm so quickly?
Making up for the lack of punch of the last one? I wondered about my date with Cassie later
that night. Maybe we’d have to stay in. That might be interesting.
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t get my mind around my group meeting. What I
would say to them. I’d indicated to Buster that some revelation would ensue. All I needed to
do was think of one.
Once again, I walked across the sidewalk toward the steps of the building. Where Julia
had met her fate and this whole business had begun. It now felt like years ago. Nothing but a
I was ten minutes early to our session. Everyone was there. Sitting as if it were a class
rather than a meeting. Under the gun.
“Doctor F,” Buster greeted me. “We’re ready.”
Great. Like being thrown on a stage with no idea what the audience expected of me.
The nightmare of all performers. No matter whether comedian, cellist, or teacher. All the
same in that sense. Maybe all the same no matter what sense.
When they finally stopped scratching, yawning, and belching, I grabbed a piece of
old-fashioned chalk and scribbled a mess of lines all over the blackboard. And then turned
and looked at them. I’d gotten their attention.
“What does this remind you of?” I said.
They looked like I’d just fallen off the wagon. Gone mad. Bug eyed, and with my new
salt and pepper beard, giving away my telltale signs of old age.
Finally, Buster said, “Your mind?”
And with that the group burst into laughter. Broke the ice. Everyone relaxed a bit.
“Besides that,” I said. And meant it.
“I get it,” one of them said, “chaos!”
“Right. Any order present?”
“No,” another one said.
“Wait a minute,” Buster interrupted. “It’s all white on black. The lines are mostly
horizontal. Lots of little things.” Damn, was she bright.
“Yes,” I said. “At first glance it makes no sense. But looking closer at it, while nothing
is absolutely the same as anything else, there’s a certain kind of simplistic order to it. Most of
the lines are the same width. The upper right portion resembles the lower left portion. Not
vice versa. Lots of other similarities. Not deliberate. But there nonetheless.”
“So what?” Carmen, a guy with a girl’s name said.
“He’s telling us that even in complete chaos, things can be compared in useful ways
providing at least a temporary sense of order.” Buster. The reason I have graduate students.
To do my thinking for me. She was onto something that had remained stillborn in my mind
“Right. We’ve not been finding order in output because we’ve been using a strict
interpretation of the word. A hardnosed and very biased sense of the word. Dare I say it, but
perfect chaos itself has a kind of order to it, given that there’s a predictability to its
I stopped then. Gone too far.
“Philosophy?” Carmen said. “Foul play. Word games.” Right, of course.
“Maybe,” Buster said. “But I think I know what he’s getting at.”
Why not let her run with it?
“There’s really no such thing as perfect chaos. All of it will have clumps of vaguely
recognizable order here and there. Like in a Jackson Pollock painting. Looks random, but
isn’t. Not really.”
The perfect thing to say. Because that was exactly what I meant.
“Yes,” I immediately agreed. “What if we define ‘order’ as a bounded different kind of
Now we were all on the same page. And the questions and responses poured out.
“If that were the case, then, life wouldn’t be ordered, it would simply be a different
kind of chaos.”
“Yes. Exactly what it is. After all, a rock is more ordered than life.”
“So what we should look for is a separate kind of disorder, and call it order?”
“And we find that all over the place.”
“But, so what? It’s there one minute and gone the next.”
“Yes. Like life.”
And then the burst of enthusiasm disappeared suddenly. Followed immediately by
pensive introspection. Gone too far? Not far enough?
Time for me to take the reins.
“Let’s try an example. See what happens.”
“Grab your computers and let’s do it.”
That they could do. And turned to their laptops.
“Remember my favorite equation?” I asked them.
“One divided by cosine X squared,” Buster said.
“Yes. So let’s begin there. Create a simple recursive program that produces a limited
amount of output.”
“Now?” Paul. Always with the details.
“Now,” I said. And they did.
When everyone had looked up again, I said, “Okay, run it a thousand times, and then
graph the results in x,y space.”
And they did.
“Results?” I asked, when they’d finished.
“A chaotic bunch of points mostly between zero and both positive and negative three.
Except for unexpected high and low points that interrupt the flow. These points are way out
of bounds. Like ten times the norm. And no number repeats.”
“Did you test for that?” I asked.
“Now then, is there bounded chaos within that mess?”
I could see them staring into their lighted screens, coming to the realization almost
“Just what he said. The groups of rather static low-level stuff ending with these
“Exactly. Does that cover every number?” I asked them.
“In fact, then, all the output falls within that single category.” I said it loud enough so
they could get the point.
“So what?” This time Buster was trying, like any good scientist should, to knock it
“Good question. Anybody want to try an answer?”
“Yes,” Carmen said. “There’s more order there than that. Some of the collections of
chaos ending with spikes are larger than others. We could easily make classifications based on
size and then collect those into further collections.”
“Remind you of anything?”
“Life?” Buster asked.
“Again, probably too strong a word to use, but a lot more than we had before.” As I
said this, I watched their eyes grow big again. Maybe I should begin all my meetings without
knowing what I was talking about.
“But,” Carmen argued, “there’s not one number in common between any of these
“True,” I said, “but there’s not one thing in common between any two life forms
either. Everyone’s different, at least to a degree. We’re similar but not exact. Approximations
“But if life were this simple to define, everything in the universe would be alive.”
“Animist.” A dirty word to scientists. At least most scientists.
“Then tell me how life evolved from non-life?”
“Foul play, again. No religion allowed within this room.”
“Sure would make defining life easier.”
“And trying to figure out how it began. Came from the Big Bang.”
Comments came faster than I could keep up with who said what.
“Let’s begin with more realistic expectations,” I said. “All chaotic output won’t yield
such simple analysis. It’s a beginning though. We should use some PDEs to create more
confusing chaotic results, and then program some forgiving pattern matchers to
automatically search for semblances of what I’ll call ‘bounded chaos’ to see if these collections
themselves form patterns that may have connections between them.”
“Network theory.” Paul added. A mathematics major.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“You’ve done it, Doctor F.,” Buster said.
“Hardly. You’ve done it. We’ve done it, Buster. “But we’re not done yet. It’s a
beginning, sure, but the devil’s in the details.”
Before I’d even finished with my platitude, they had turned toward their computers
again with an eagerness I hadn’t seen since the project began. The answer, if that was what it
was, had been so simple. A turn of phrase. A philosophical question more than a computer
science answer. Whatever. It had worked beautifully. So far.
I walked back to my apartment in the dark. Trying not to think of Julia as I did. When
I got back, Jackson was still glued to the TV. He had a budding case of obsession. Or
compulsion. Never could figure out the difference. Maybe he could tell me some day.
I grabbed a beer and considered what to wear for my date with Cassie. Half hour to
I felt pretty good about how the meeting had gone. Improvising something that
might actually work. I hoped I’d feel as good about my date with Cassie tonight.
“How long did you rent the car for?”
“No time limit. We’re charged by the day. We get the bill when we return it. It’s not
like they’re having a run on rentals these days. I think I may have been the first customer
“Gotcha. Let’s keep it for a while. I’ll cover it.”
“Yes. You will.” Back to the TV. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Garfield and
As I left the apartment, a light rain was turning into a light snow, with a stiff breeze
blowing. Harbingers of things to come, I presumed.
But the streets were still clear and no ice. So I made my way across town unabated. I
pulled up in front of Cassie’s place and parked. I was early, so decided I wait a few seconds to
let my heart stop pounding as I tried to imagine what she might be wearing. Or not wearing.
Our second date. Been almost a week since the first. I hoped she didn’t mind my new
beard. I’d decided to let it grow. Figured that some of my bruises might still show around my
jaw, and the beard had grown to cover that area of my face nicely.
I looked at my face in the rearview mirror. Even in the dim light of from her house, I
looked acceptable. Especially given the last time she’d seen me. Besides, I reminded myself,
looks aren’t everything.
And I thought about what we might talk about. Certainly not Jackson and my
afternoon’s episode with Patton. And I didn’t think she’d be interested in my evening session
with my grad students. Maybe we could talk about her for a change. Less about her family.
Just about her. Seemed like a good idea. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?
I gathered my wits about me and headed for her door. I couldn’t believe how excited I
was to see her. Maybe to kiss her again. If nothing else, to stare at her. Beautiful. Who said
looks aren’t everything?
I knocked twice and waited. No immediate answer. Maybe she was still in the shower. I
knocked again. This time with the ra-ta-ta-tat, tat-tat sign of familiarity. Why not? We knew
each other. Had kissed. It was a friendly knock.
No answer. The lights were on. I rang the doorbell. I could hear it echo throughout
the house. And I waited.
No answer. Had she forgotten? We’d just made the date that afternoon. Strange to
imagine her forgetting.
Then it occurred to me. Doris had been kidnapped. Had Cassie met the same fate? Was
I tried the door. Forward of me, though it seemed the right thing to do under the
circumstances. Locked. Double locked in fact, for the knob gave a little and I could feel the
deadbolt above it giving no sway. Locked out. Did that mean she was inside? Or had she left
by the back door?
Maybe she’d changed her mind. Didn't want to tell me. Was hiding inside somewhere
hoping I’d go away. Given my life of late I wouldn’t blame her. Exciting though dangerous.
Not for the feint of heart.
I walked around the house to the backyard. No fence. North Dakota was not a place
fond of fences. Maybe out in the ranch lands. But certainly not in the cities or towns.
Particularly not university towns. Who were you keeping out?
I tried the back door. Locked. I knocked. Twice. No answer. Getting nowhere. Maybe
she was stuck at the store or someplace else. I could always imagine so. She would come home
bearing gifts of meat and potatoes. For the dinner we’d share in her dining room. After which
we’d sit in her living room and neck. Neck? Still using that word these days?
I roamed around to the front of her house again. Wondered if I should try to find a
nosy neighbor. See if one of those had any notion where she might be. Unfortunately, the
houses on both sides of hers looked empty at the moment. No lights in the dark night.
Nothing to indicate someone watching television or reading by candlelight. No smoke from
the chimneys. I wished I had a cell phone.
I got back in the Buick and drove back to town. To find a phone to call her. Maybe she
was back by now. Or I could report her missing to the police. Would Patton believe me? After
our antics this morning?
Most of the daytime businesses had closed, so I killed two birds with one stone and
drove on to the police department. Patton wasn’t in. A first. But I imagined him still at the
warehouse working on fingerprints or whatever cops did when they found the vacated
locations of criminals.
I borrowed a phone from one of the desks and dialed Cassie’s place. I’d memorized her
number. No answer. I let it ring way beyond the logical time to end the call. Still no answer. I
could hear Patton saying, “So what. She’s probably escaped town by now. Fearful of your next
bumbling efforts to solve the city’s crimes.”
Regardless, I gave a concerned citizen report to the front desk clerk and made sure
she wrote it down correctly. I signed it and told her it was an emergency. Another person
had disappeared recently and no one had heard from her since. We couldn’t let that happen
again. She was very careful with the report and told me the chief would get it first thing on
I watched her cross the room and place it face up on Patton’s desk. Then I turned
around, depressed as hell, and walked toward the door.
“Wait,” I heard the clerk say. “Did you say Cassie Davies?”
I turned to look at her.
“Just now. In that report you made.”
“Yes. And you wrote it down twice. I saw you.”
“I know. But I write up so many reports, I’ve trained myself to write and not think.
Too confusing otherwise.”
“So Cassie Davies isn’t missing.”
“No. She’s with Patton.”
“With Patton? What do you mean?”
“She’s out with Patton.”
“You know. Out at that place.”
I immediately imagined him at some flashy restaurant having dinner with Cassie.
She’d rejected me for a cop. Damn his eyes.
“That barn. You know the one. Way out in the boonies.”
I did know the one.
“Don’t know. They never tell me anything around here.”
Probably because you wouldn’t remember, I swore at her under my breath.
“When did this happen?”
“About an hour or so ago. I called her myself. And she said she’d be going there as
quickly as possible.”
Ah. An old flame rekindled. She’d either forgotten me or swooned when he’d called.
Whichever, it meant curtains for me. Eleven pipers piping.
I left the building and drove the car in the direction Jackson and I’d gone earlier that
day. I put the lights on bright and tried to remember the distances and different streets we’d
passed. Couldn’t name one of them. Too hyped for that. Both then and now. But before long,
I’d at least found the road on which the warehouse stood at the end of its long driveway, and
hoped I wouldn’t miss it in the dark.
I didn’t miss it. I passed it and had to make a U-turn. I raced down the washboard road
until I saw the building straight ahead. I saw no reason to make my presence a secret. I was
damn mad. For a lot of reasons. So I drove right on into the meadow and parked at the front
door to the place. The lights inside were full on and several uniformed cops ambled in and
out like it was a routine day at Macy’s.
I got out of the rental and went in the door. I looked around for Patton or Cassie. Lots
of people. Except neither of them. Everyone looked busy doing something. I couldn’t tell
what. Then I noticed both of them in the far corner of the building, sitting at a table together
nursing mugs of what I presumed was coffee. I walked in their direction.
As if he’d seen me out of the corner of his eye, and without looking in my direction,
Patton raised his right arm and signaled to me stop with the palm of his hand. And I did. He
kept it there for a minute and then slowly lowered it. But the conversation continued, and I
didn’t feel welcome to interrupt.
I sat down in a nearby chair and waited. Like a schoolboy waiting to see the principal.
What a life. Well, I thought, at least one thing went right today. My meeting with the
students. Or maybe I’d overestimated that as well. If I gave it some thought, I could change
Patton waved me over finally. I arrived just as he finished saying something I couldn’t
“Sorry to interrupt your evening, Francis. I had to see Cassie about something
“None of your business, actually. But, if you must know, she was helping me figure out
who the bad guys are.”
“Hey, guys, I’m sitting right here. I can speak for myself. You’re talking about me in
the third person. I hate that.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Can you tell me why you broke our date?”
“Ah,” Patton said, “down to the real reason you’re angry.”
“Patton called me,” she said. An emergency. Couldn’t not come. Remember, besides
being a psychiatrist, I’m also a member of the court. I work for the county and am on call
whenever they need me. They needed me tonight.”
“And to answer your question directly, Francis, she’s doing a psychological profile on
the lead character in our little melodrama. You know, the one involving three murders and a
“Yeah. Julia, the woman you call Dolly, and some unnamed guy that you beat up but
didn’t shoot in the forehead.”
“Oh yeah. Forgot about him. Any word on Doris?”
“No. Though thanks for asking.”
“And we've finished. Haven’t we Patton?”
“For now,” he said to her. “But I may need you later.”
Cassie rose from her seat, and for the first time I noticed she was still wearing her
heavy coat, though the room was quite warm. She walked over and joined me, both of us still
looking at Patton.
“Ready?” she asked me.
“For our date? That still on?”
“Absolutely,” she said, as she wrinkled her nose at me. Christ, I wished she wouldn’t do
that. Especially in public.
“Need me for anything, Patton?”
“You? I wish I’d never laid eyes on you, Francis. Go. Get out of my sight.” I never knew
whether he was kidding or not.
We found our way outside and approached my rental.
“That what you’re driving these days?” she said.
“A rental. I suppose you brought your car?”
“No. One of Patton’s men picked me up and brought me here.”
“Good. I’ll drive.”
And I took her to the rental car. Such as it was.
She took a look at it. “I hope it’s not as lovely inside.”
“I’m afraid it is.”
We got in and I turned on the overhead lights. I’d been so busy getting somewhere
when I’d driven it, I hadn’t had a chance to really look over the inside. A catastrophe. The
seats had stuffing pushing out through cracks in the upholstery. Some cotton-like stuff hung
down from the cloth inside and under the roof. In the light from the barn, the holes looked
like they’d been made by bullets. And, of course, the whole thing smelled like old tobacco,
wet dog, and three-month old gym socks. A winner.
“Where’d you get this gem?” she asked me.
“Jackson. He picked it up as a rental from a downtown used car lot.”
“Not surprised. Let’s make this trip short and sweet.”
My heartbeat escalated.
“Your place?” I asked, to make sure I’d heard what I’d heard.
Instead of answering, she opened up her overcoat. Even in the dark lighting I could
see her dress. What there was of it. Looked more like an invitation than a piece of clothing.
I almost drove off road and into the forest.
“I had in mind that we’d eat a nice quiet late dinner at my place this evening. What do
“I’m all for it,” I said. And left it at that. Why ruin a perfectly presented invitation.
I knew something was wrong the minute I turned onto her street. Not only were the
lights on throughout her house where they hadn’t been before, but the doors looked open as
well. I drove down and into her driveway. As far as I could, that is. We both saw the wreckage.
Furniture strewn over the front lawn. Windows broken. A complete mess.
“Jesus,” I said. “It wasn't that way an hour ago when I was here.”
She opened the passenger side door, stepped out into the mess, and stumbled her way
inside. I followed and found her standing in the bedroom nearly in tears.
“Who could’ve done this?” she asked me.
“Probably the same crew who committed the murders, kidnappings, blew up Jackson’s
car. All that.”
“Don’t know. Been asking myself that question for a few weeks now. Nothing makes
any sense. Let’s see if the phone works, we’ve got to call Patton in on this.”
I looked around for it. Nowhere to be seen
“C’mon, we’ll go over to my place. You can stay there for the night, and tomorrow
we’ll begin cleaning this up.”
“Isn’t Jackson staying with you?”
“I can’t go wearing this. And she opened her coat again. This time in full light. The
dress or whatever you’d call it, looked painted on, with every curve of her body visible in
three dimensions. Much of it uncovered. Though not embarrassingly so. Just enough to be
almost unbearably enticing.
“I see your point. Check your closet. Maybe you can find something to change into.
Collect anything else you think you might need. We’ll figure out arrangements when we get
to my place. For now, we’ve got to get you away from here. They could be out there in the
dark right now, waiting to make their move.”
“Suppose you’re right.’ And she walked into the hallway and disappeared for a minute.
I looked around. Clearly an attempt to intimidate rather than burgle. I certainly didn’t know
what she had, so I couldn’t be sure things weren’t missing. But it looked like a premeditated
attempt to destroy everything they found.
She returned with a suitcase and a couple of purses.
“Everything you need?”
“No. But enough for now. Let’s go. I can’t look at this anymore.”
And we drove the Rent a Wreck to my apartment across town and found Jackson
watching a black and white movie on TV.
“Jesus, Francis, you should have warned me you were bringing a guest home.”
“Didn’t know it until now. Somebody wrecked Cassie’s place. She’s staying with us for
I thought I saw his mouth turn to a wry grin slightly. Then he said, “Who?”
“For heaven’s sake, they didn’t leave their names. We don’t know who. Cassie’s going
to call Patton now. He’s still out at the warehouse in the forest where we were this morning.”
“She know about that?”
“I’m assuming she does.”
“Where’s she going to sleep?”
“My room. I’ll sleep out here with you. We can work out the exact arrangements after
she calls Patton.”
“Not the way you hoped it’d turn out?”
When she’d finished reporting the break-in to Patton, she returned to the front room
and took off her coat. She’d changed into a normal work dress. Almost unflattering compared
to what she’d worn before. Probably for the best.
“Cassie, you take the bedroom. Jackson and I’ll make good in the living room.”
“But the bathroom’s off the bedroom. How will you . . .”
“Not a problem. We’ll work something out. The bedroom’s yours and that’s it.”
She smiled. And I guessed that was it.
Until she asked, “Did you see my car at the house?”
“Don’t know. Where’d you park it?”
“In the driveway. Where you parked.”
“Well, we’ll have to add grand theft auto to the their list of crimes. My guess is they
want you where they can find you.”
“They can find me here.”
“But they’ll have to get by two of Patton’s finest outside, and go through Jackson and
me in here. We can handle ourselves.”
“I guess you can,” she said.
“By the way, do you have anything to eat? I’m famished.”
“Let me introduce you to our patented gourmet kit. Coffee, beer, nuts, and tuna fish.”
“Sounds interesting,” she said.
And we ate from our diminishing supplies, Down to sticking our fingers in the cans
and slurping up the remaining juice. Nothing goes to waste in my kitchen.
Twelve drummers drumming flashed through my mind as I woke to the sun shining
through my living room window. The twelve points of the Apostle’s Creed. Of which the final
words were ‘and everlasting life.’ Did I believe in such things? Not really. Except it made for a
great English poem and an equally fun song to sing. And me coming yet again to the last of
one of my stupid number countdowns. First eleven, now twelve.
I got up and looked outside. Another short but nothing storm had passed. Most of the
snow had vanished, and for the first time in a month or two I could see extended areas of
brown grass and evergreens without snow or icicles on them. Just like spring, though I knew
it yet to be far away.
Jackson snored loudly from his chair in front of the TV, now soundless except still
showing Casablanca. Bogart, Bergman, and the irrepressible Claude Rains. I turned it off.
Colorized version. What were those idiots thinking?
I tried not to ponder over Cassie sleeping in my bed. Of using the same covers I’d
used. And made some coffee. Too confused to grind the beans. She and Jackson would have to
suffer through with more or less routine concoctions of their drug of choice.
Beyond the coffee, the pantry was nearly empty. The cupboards were almost bare. The
grocery was only down the street, but I couldn’t leave and have them wake to find me gone.
Another apparent kidnapping. Maybe we could all go when they woke up.
I drank my coffee slowly. Let it roll down my throat as if it held some nourishment.
Fat lot of good that did me. Though I gave it a chance.
Jackson woke first. Came into the kitchen yawning and ready for a cup of the brew. I
let him have a chance at it. He gave me that look. I was used to it.
Almost immediately, Cassie joined us. Dressed in her going-to-work uniform. The
minute she appeared at the door, Jackson headed for the bathroom. Long time no pee.
“How’d you sleep?” she asked me.
“No problem,” I lied. The couch had been a bumpy ride. “How about you?”
“I’m going to have to find another place for tonight.”
“What’s wrong? I thought the bed was pretty comfortable.”
“Not the problem,” she said. “It’s the context.”
I didn’t follow.
“Whose bed am I sleeping in?”
A warm and fuzzy feeling crept up by backside.
“But where can you go?”
“Plenty of places, actually. Don’t think anyone’s rented Julia’s, Dolly’s, or Doris’s places
yet. After all, the memories of what happened to the previous occupants can’t be ignored
“That would make you a target.”
“I think I’m already a target. At the same time, it might be the very last place they’d
look for me. I’m also beginning to think I’m in your category.”
“Intimidate only. After all, they could have hit my house earlier and bagged me, as
well as ruin my place. But they didn’t.”
“So what’s psychological profiling all about?”
“Last night with Patton? He asks questions about an unknown person and I, based on
previous activities he gives me, provide him with a psychological profile of the perpetrator.
As best I can. Like what he or she might do next.”
“Sometimes. Certainly not always. Either way he’s got something to go on at least.
Where he might not have anything without it.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Help him at all?”
“Too soon to tell. We’ll know more when we catch them.”
“You’re sure that’s going to happen?”
“Patton always gets his man.”
“That really the case?”
“Most of the time. At least since I’ve been here.”
“Breakfast?” I asked.
“No time. Sorry. I have patients and court matters to tend to.”
“Should I be?”
That look again.
She bent down to where I was sitting and gave me a little hug, turned, and left.
“What about your things?”
“I’m all packed. My stuff’s by the door.”
And sure enough it was. Then she left as promised. And Jackson came out of the
“Where’s she going?”
“But she took her stuff with her.”
I realized he’d had to walk through part of the bedroom then. Must have noticed.
“She’s staying someplace else tonight.”
“Why? Nice to have her here.”
“Too true. Though she needs her space.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Don’t push it, Jackson.”
“We should go out for some real breakfast,” he said.
“Give me a second to change and pee. Not necessarily in that order.”
We drove to a place downtown that’s only open for breakfast. Very popular, though I
never could figure out how they made a go of it. Could have opened for lunch and dinner as
well and made a lot more money. But maybe that wasn’t the point.
We chose a table near the door and each ordered the biggest combo on the menu. I
looked around the room. Nobody I knew. Of course, some of them could know me. No
students, though, which made for a brisk light business. Our meals arrived quickly.
“So what’s it going to be today?“ he asked.
“No idea. What about you?”
“The cleanup’s beginning today at my place. I need to be there to coordinate. Should
be able to move back in tomorrow sometime late in the day.
I didn’t want him to think I didn’t enjoy his company, so left that one alone.
“I’m glad things are getting back to normal for you,” I said.
“Hardly that. All they’re going to do is put stuff in containers and then catalog and
remove all the destroyed stuff. Insurance purposes. When I get there, I’ll be facing a couple
weeks of sorting things out. But at least it will be an organized mess, rather than just a mess.”
I left that one alone, too. Seemed like everyone’s life was getting back to normal.
While mine continued haphazardly. I had no idea what to do next. Continue to charge ahead
blindly? Sit and wait for whatever and whoever was after me to show up on my doorstep? It
had felt so good the previous day to find the barn. Whether it had turned out meaningfully
or not, the adventure had kept my mind off the various disasters this whole thing had caused
me and many others. And in North Dakota yet. Who says nothing happens here?
When we returned to the apartment, Jackson decided he was tiring of old movies on
TV and was going to spend the rest of the day in his office. Preparing for his spring semester
classes and polishing up an article he’d written several months ago, but had not submitted
yet for publication.
He washed up and left, leaving me alone for the first time since I’d driven out to the
old warehouse in search of Cassie. A nice feeling in some ways. Being alone with not much to
remind me of my current state of affairs. No TV. Not having to worry about anyone else for a
Then the telephone rang, and I grabbed it as quickly as I could. More in self-defense
than in talking to whomever had called.
“Doctor F., this is Buster.” Her voice sounded a lot better than another ring on the
“Buster, what’s up?”
“We’ve come up with some interesting results. Thought you might like to hear about
“Well, a number of us ran a certain category of PDEs and discovered some unusual
“The ‘bounded chaos,’ as you’ve termed it, seems to want to crawl around when we use
a graphics program to demonstrate the output. As if in the depths of the unordered mess,
these chaotic areas somehow connect with one another by way of similarities.”
“What do you mean by ‘crawl around?’”
“Well, they seem to move like they have destinations. Have independence somehow. I
know it sounds impossible. And certainly the way we’ve set up the graphical interface may
have something to do with it. But it’s absolutely eerie. Almost scary.”
“And you say that more than one of you have had this happen?”
“Actually, if we wait long enough for billions of numbers to pass, it’s happened to all
of us. And that’ not all.”
“Yes. They seem to divide.”
I had no words for that.
“You still there, Doctor F.?”
“Still here. Just not sure I’m hearing your right. You’re not pulling a prank on me are
“Wish we were. Not sure I want to go to sleep tonight.”
“Well they appear to ingest things. But that could be an illusion. In fact, the whole
thing could be an illusion.”
“Are there things to ingest? When we ran the initial test with my favorite equation,
everything fit into a ‘bounded chaos.’”
“Much the same thing here. They’re cannibals. The bigger ones eat the smaller ones.”
I had no response to that.
Finally, I said, “Time to check everything. The equations. Output. Pattern matcher.
“We will. But remember, you had us all write our own code. Use our own computers.
This is not a freak accident. We’re even using different matchers and different graphical
programs. Similar results . . . ”
“Can you control these in any way?”
“You mean like introduce a separate number and see if it causes problems?”
“Something like that.”
“Yes. We did.”
“I’m afraid to ask what that caused.”
“The ‘bounded chaos’ began to dismantle at first. But then something caused it to
regroup and eventually it became stabilized. If that’s a word that can even be used in this
“You mean it returned to whatever it was in the first place.”
“Exactly. A kind of amorphous region with boundaries that had a built-in immune
system of some sort.”
I went silent again.
“I know this is all a bit too extraordinary to take, Doctor F., but it’s true. Completely
true. Every word I’ve told you.”
“I believe you, Buster. But let’s make sure that we really on to something here. Science
only from now on. No intuitions. Verify and the re-verify. Run the tests over and over again.
Try to break it. Let it run and see what happens. If it develops into anything more
interesting or just stays the same.”
“Will do. None of us are leaving this place tonight. I can tell you that.”
I had nothing left to say.
She filled in the silence, “And when we visualize them on the screen, they have small
heads and long straight tails. Any idea what we’ve got here?” she asked.
“Sounds like a computer virus to me. Maybe one that not only reproduces itself, but
one over which we may have no control.”
“We thought so, too. That’s why we named them ‘wiruses.’ Because they act like
viruses, but look like wires. Biological viruses are not alive, are they?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on who you talk to. Most biologists will tell you no.”
“But computer viruses are independent. This chaotic soup we’re working with
functions only within the programming environment that’s running it.”
“True. Though it would be easy enough to compile it and make it independent. But
that’s the last thing we’d want to do. Unleash something we can’t control on an unsuspecting
“Alive?” she asked again.
“Viruses? Don’t think so. Wiruses? Who knows?”
“Maybe you should call them whyruses. W-H-Y-R-U-S-E-S,” I spelled it out for her.
She didn’t look impressed by my extraordinary wit. But then added, “How about Why
are us? Three words.”
“Enough. But I’m truly impressed with what you guys have achieved,” I told her. “It
may be something very important. Only time will tell. And we’re going to play it by the
book. I’ll be by there when I can get away. But get some sleep. And eat something. No time
for you guys to get sick on me.”
And we disconnected.
“What have we done?” I asked myself. “What have we done?”
I sat back in my chair and tried to relax for a while. Nice sunny day with no one
around to disturb me. I could have walked across the street and inspected the wirisus in the
lab, but decided to let my group continue the experiments on their own. They’d earned the
time to work without me horning in on them.
Suddenly I heard a sound outside my front door. Then, with a mighty crash, two large,
muscular men launched themselves into my apartment. They looked Middle Eastern — had
all the stereotypes I was momentarily ashamed to admit I’d considered. The men glanced
around, and came after me. The first one had his hands fisted and an unpleasant look on his
face. The second wrestled with something that looked like duct tape. Strips and strips of duct
tape. Attached to his arms.
Before I had a chance to react, the first one grabbed me by the shirt, twisted me
around so I was facing away from him, and within a second or two felt the second one
winding duct tape around my wrists behind my back.
“What’s going on?” I yelled, realizing I actually knew what was going on. They were
abducting me. With duct tape no less.
Before I could react further, the second man plastered one of his strips of tape over
my mouth, sealing it closed. The tape didn’t fit tight because of my beard, but it worked
anyway. They both then wrapped my feet like my hands, fully rendering me helpless. I tried
to scream or get away, but it had happened so fast and so unexpectedly, I was caught like a
rat in a trap.
One of the men grabbed me under the arms and the other my feet, and in one swift
motion they lifted me, and then carried me out to a pickup truck parked in front of my
apartment, and without fanfare tossed me into its bed. They climbed into the cab, keyed the
ignition, and with a growl of an unhappy engine off we went, along with one or two
explosions from the muffler to announce our departure.
I hadn’t noticed either of the cops on our way out of the apartment. Maybe they’d
taken care of them. Or had Patton decided to move them elsewhere?
I had no idea where we were going, though I soon discovered the truck in which I lay
smelled of ripe manure that now covered me from head to toe. It had, apparently, softened
my landing. I tried to tear away the binds that bound my hands and feet, but they held tight.
Score one for duct tape. Another extraordinary application for the ubiquitous all-purpose
My abductors hadn’t spoken a word as they attacked me. While I had a few scratches
from being thrown into the back of the truck, the whole operation had been as quick and
painless as one could imagine.
I wondered why I hadn’t acted more swiftly. I had the weapons. Elbows and knees.
Along with heads, they posed heavy artillery for a man otherwise unarmed. A crippling blow
to an elbow or knee would easily disable an attacker. Try putting duct tape on something
while having only one good arm. But I hadn’t done it. Why? Too anxious to get this over? To
see what it was all about? Had I actually beat the two of them senseless, what would I have
gained? Nothing. This case, we were on our way. Maybe to find the one responsible for this
mess. The one behind it all.
We bumped our way onto another road and away from town. All I could see was the
landscape slowly disappearing behind us. Where we’d been, not where we were going. Nor
could I figure the precise direction, as I couldn’t locate the sun in the sky, or the shadows it
projected on the ground. I could see trees occasionally, but then North Dakota had tress to
some degree in every direction. Basically, I was along for the ride. Unable to escape, and
having no idea how far we were going or where. I decided to relax and give it some thought.
Who could be behind all this? Someone I knew? Been through that. And then some. If
it were someone I didn’t know, they sure had worked things out carefully this time. Except
thinking about people I didn’t know hardly did me any good. Could be anybody. Of course,
they had continued to miss me previously. Hadn’t perfected their technique. Until now.
The truck sputtered along the highway going whichever way it was going. Maybe we
were on our way to Fargo, I thought. And then envisioned traveling the roads all the way
there in the back of this pickup. Not a pretty picture. Could easily see myself rolling out the
back and over into the prairie, something that had to be worse than being kidnapped.
As I mused these possibilities, we passed a sign that read, “Welcome to North Dakota.”
But we were already in North Dakota. I knew that. Then the obvious dawned on me. If we
were leaving North Dakota, the sign would read the same to me as for those traveling in the
opposite direction. After all, I was looking backwards toward where we’d been. Logic, Francis,
time for logic!
If we’d left North Dakota, we must now be driving into Canada. Was that possible? Too
little time for anything else. Montana, Minnesota, and South Dakota just too far away. We
were now in Canada, of that much I was sure. Of course, a lot of good that did me.
The truck kept piddling along, occasionally barking an explosion out its tailpipes
though maintaining a fairly respectable speed. I couldn’t hear my captors above the noise,
and I couldn’t signal the few passing cars, even those that followed closely before they
passed. For all they could see, I was only more manure. For all I could smell, they’d be right.
The day slowly passed, and I lost all track of time. Fell asleep for a bit. When I woke,
the sun had moved through much of the sky toward the west and evening. The landscape,
however, remained the same. I was cold, and lone snowflakes began to settle over my crap-
covered body. Wherever we were, US of A or Canada, the weather was about to go from bad
Finally, we turned onto a gravel road and drove what I hoped would be the final leg of
our journey. Stones the tires spit out occasionally passed by overhead and once one hit me in
the side. I burrowed deeper into the manure for protection. All the while trying to figure out
the physics of how stones could curve up and over the sides of a pickup and find me. Chaos?
Unfortunately, this final leg of our journey became just another long and noisy
extension instead. How had they found me? Had I been circumspect enough to actually check
for a tail during the last few blocks home the previous night? Probably not. They could have
figured I’d be home, and come for me after Cassie and Jackson departed. Or had they left me
alone to make this kidnap possible? A cover. Part of the conspiracy? My head ached.
The sun set, and we continued onward into the night. The stars slowly appeared and
then disappeared behind clouds. Freezing cold. Not sure how much longer I could survive out
here. Even the warmth of the manure covering me had waned. The road, however, turned
from dirt back into pavement. Smoother ride. A good thing.
Eventually, the truck slowed and, after a gradual turn, came to a stop. We’d come
hundreds of miles at minimum. Didn’t make much sense that the enemy would make their
headquarters so far away. But, out of everyone’s jurisdiction would be the perfect place. The
middle of some province in Canada. Nowhere.
The motor painfully quieted, but only after a volley of burps from the exhaust, and
several after-burning groans from the engine. Two doors slammed, and before long hands
grabbed my arms and legs and pulled me from my fertile resting place. They dragged me
away still looking backwards. Too dark to see any faces. Too dark to see anything. One of my
abductors then grabbed me around my chest and pulled me up and over a series of steps and
onto a porch. We waited there while the other man, I assumed, pushed a doorbell. We waited
some more. Finally, someone opened the door and spoke in a language I didn’t understand
and we entered what I assumed was a house.
They dragged me inside through some kind of hallway, and down a flight of stairs
into a large wood-paneled room. The lights were dim, but I could see elbow-high bookcases
lining the walls. An attractive old throw rug lay on the floor. And what appeared to be
ancient artifacts placed here and there on pedestals. Quite a collection of antiquities. I was
looking backwards toward the door we’d just entered. A position with which I was now quite
familiar. My body ached from the ride. And my head spun from the constant smell of manure.
Voices again spoke in a language I didn’t understand. The men, apparently following
instructions, shoved me into a chair, slowly removed my hand restraints, and uncovered my
mouth. The sticky goo of the duct tape ripped at my skin and beard as they did. The they
turned me around.
In front of me stood a large man. A very large man. So large, in fact, I couldn’t
imagine him real. As wide as he was tall. Dressed in a kind of uniform frilled on almost every
edge with black and white trim. He smoked a large cigar. As he stared at me, he rolled it
between his fingers. His face, again as wide as it was high, reminded me of Gutman in the film
The Maltese Falcon. Sydney Greenstreet.
I had an idea and balled my right hand into a fist. With all the energy I had, and as
much adrenaline as my body could produce, drove it directly into the midsection of the man
standing to my immediate left. One of my kidnappers, I presumed. I not only hit the mark, I
could feel his stomach cave in as I struck gold. I’d caught him completely unaware. He
immediately doubled over and I could hear the breath escape from his lungs.
“Gotcha,” I screamed.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten something in my zeal to escape. He hadn’t yet
unwrapped my feet. I tipped back into the chair from my exertion. As I fell backward, I felt a
heavy hand chop low on my neck. It sent pain into every muscle, joint, and organ in my body.
I didn’t so much sit back in the chair. I collapsed there. A just end for my lack of taking out
both my abductors when we’d first arrived. Didn’t count the fat man. He’d be good only if he
had a gun or sat on me.
The pain didn’t subside. It got worse. My muscles twitched. I lost control of
everything except my bowels. They didn’t have enough food in them to release anything at
The fat man watched as I wriggled. Didn’t seem to enjoy or pity me. Just watched in
silence as I slowly regained a semblance of my former self. The man I’d socked in the gut was
equally paralyzed. For that, I was grateful.
“You ready to act civil now?” the fat man asked me in near perfect English.
I nodded, my voice still quieted by the blow to my neck. A move I’d have to learn.
The man I’d hit got up, and my two abductors stood astride me and bowed slightly
from the hip towards Gutman. Following that, I presumed they left the room, since they
disappeared and I heard a door close behind me. I still couldn’t turn my head to see.
The fat man laughed, and the rolls of loose flesh around his waist bounced around like
“I hope you don’t always smell like this,” he said.
I had no response to that, so I kept my mouth shut.
“You can speak, can’t you?”
I grimaced. He nodded and took a puff on his long thin cigar.
“You definitely have me at a disadvantage, Sir,” I told him.
He smiled at my use of the word ‘Sir’ and took another puff from his cigar.
“I actually hate these things,” he said, looking at the cigar. “I decided to use this one
as a counteragent to ward off your smell. Afraid it’s not working.”
“Not my idea,” I said. “I’d have preferred a different ride. Or, for that matter, no ride
“I can understand that, Professor Francis. But from my perspective, that wasn’t
possible. I needed you here to tell me about your work.”
Again, there wasn’t much in that for me.
“So why am I here, Mister . . .”
“No need to know my name. At least not yet. Irrelevant at this point.”
“Are you the number one man in all this?” I asked.
“You know. The one pulling the strings?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Alright. Let’s begin again. Why am I here?”
“Because, you have something I want. And am going to get.”
“Obviously not something I brought along.”
“Oh, but you did.”
I decided to change the subject slightly. “Why have you killed so many people over
“You have quite an imagination, Professor Francis. I haven’t killed anyone.”
“Had killed, then.”
“Not that either.”
“Then who did, Sir?” Again, I noticed his simple pride at being called Sir. He rolled the
cigar between his fingers again, letting the smoke drift into his face to cover my smell.
“We’ve gotten down to business quickly. I like that.”
He looked down at his cigar again, and thought about what I’d said.
“Who do you report to? Who hired you?” I asked him.
“No one hired me. You have something I want, and I’m going to get it from you.”
“Who told you that?”
“I’m not at liberty to divulge that. Someday, maybe, though most certainly not now.”
I sat back and smelled myself. I was either getting accustomed to the odor, or it was
slowly wearing off.
“So, Professor Francis, will you tell me or not?”
“I’ll gladly give you any information I have. I’ve been through hell and back several
times now, and I don’t have a clue what you want. If I knew, you’d be the first to know it.”
“Hmmm,” he mumbled.
“Listen mister, whoever you are, my lips hurt from the duct tape your thugs used to
seal my mouth. My side burns from getting blasted by a stray rock on the way here. My back
aches from sleeping on the lumpy rear of your pickup truck. Mostly my head hurts from the
constant confusion about what’s going on. Let me repeat this one more time – I don’t know
what you’re talking about. Were I to know, I’d tell you.”
“You and I both know how valuable this discovery you’ve made is. Don’t be shy about
it. Just tell me what I want to know.”
“I can’t. I have no idea what you want.”
“Okay. Would it surprise you, Professor Francis, that you have discovered a way to
return the contemporary world to the Stone Age?”
“Yes. Because I don’t have such a thing.”
“What would you say if I told you I know most of what you already know? Just not the
final piece of the puzzle.”
“Are you telling me that?”
“Yes. But if you publish it, as I’m sure you will, it would no doubt end our little plot to
use it. And you’d never profit from it.”
“You never mentioned a profit.”
“Got your attention?”
“Could be. What are you offering?”
“How about several years of full funding for your research?”
“Why didn‘t you tell me that in the first place?”
“I doubted you’d have accepted my offer then, anymore than you will now.”
“When you discovered what I want it for, you’d never acquiesce.”
“Well, if funding for several years meant returning the world back to the Stone Age,
the funding wouldn’t be very useful to me.”
“Ah. There’s the rub.”
“You’d obviously be willing to kill me for this information, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. Willing, but not eager. Torture and killing are sometimes necessary, never
optimal. Again, Professor, I didn’t murder anyone. Nor did my men.”
I gave that some thought.
“Now, tell me what I want to know.”
Gutman’s cigar had long ago stopped smoking, and he now placed it in an ashtray on
the desk behind which he now sat.
“We do have a problem here, don’t we?” he said.
“We do indeed.”
Gutman heaved his large bulk from the chair, splayed his puffy fingers out on the
desktop in front of him, and said, “Why don’t we give you time to wash up and put on some
clean clothes before dinner? Then we can discuss our options.” And with that, he rang a bell
on the desk and his men reentered the room, ushered me out, and pushed me roughly down a
long hallway. There, they turned into a neatly laid out bedroom, and they left me there
I was immediately stunned by the beauty of what I saw. Carpets obviously woven by
middle-eastern weavers into wondrous designs. Apparent antiquities sitting atop every sill,
counter, table, and shelf in the room. A door next to the bed led to a bathroom. On a chair
next to the side of this door lay a stack of neatly ironed clothes. I stripped, took a long hot
shower, put on my new duds, and lay down for a short nap which lasted longer than I
I woke in almost total darkness. Only a sliver of light under the door provided a clue
that I hadn’t been secreted away in some closet.
Voices came from outside the room. Again speaking a language I didn’t understand.
After a minute or two, the door opened, light shown in, and one of the two guys that
had driven me here motioned for me to follow them. I did.
They led me to a large dining room in the center of which was a large rectangular
wood table covered with salads, meats, wines, and other obvious delicacies. As I stood there
taking it in, Gutman entered, sniffed the air, and said, “You took a shower.”
“I did. And changed clothes.”
“We eat and drink. After that we talk,” he said.
So we did, not speaking a word during the meal. Enjoying the aromas and tastes as
much as possible, without demeaning them with words.
When we’d finished, and for Gutman that meant quite a long time, we sat back and
looked at one another.
“Alright, Professor Francis, have you had an opportunity to think about our
“Not much. I’m afraid I slept longer than I expected. Only now getting my mental
“I understand. But this problem won’t go away. I can’t solve it without your help.”
“You have to tell me exactly what you want to know. I can’t figure out why you didn’t
state that in the first place. Saved us all a lot of trouble. We’ve been going around in circles.
And a few people have lost their lives.”
I stopped and let the words resonate in the room. My head was swimming from my
last sentence, attempting to figure out if it actually said what I’d intended it to say.
“It’s not an accident my not asking you what your secret is,” he said. “The fact is, I
don’t know how to ask the question. Because I have no idea what you have. Do you see? Your
work is special. I have a use for what you will eventually give me. I haven’t a clue whether it’s
animal, vegetable, or mineral. I know it’s digital, of course. But that’s as much as I know.
Although I think you know what I’m asking.”
I continued with my strategy, “Why don’t we call it a truce then.”
Gutman stood quietly staring off into the distance, measuring, possibly, the odds of
making this work.
I thought of Cassie. Did she miss me? Did she know I was gone? I guessed she did,
given my vacant apartment. Had she called Patton into the picture to search for me? Where
was Patton? Especially when I needed him.
Gutman interrupted my thoughts.
“So, do I bring my men in now? Maybe a little coercion would help. Torture you might
“You’ve tried that already. Those men you sent. Didn’t work.”
“But this time we already have you. At a disadvantage I might add.”
“What? You going to saw off my legs or something? Won’t be much good to you then.
Drug me? Won’t work. You’ve got to have me sober and reasonably conscious without my
mind on pain to make it work. How do you do that?”
“We have our ways. You won’t like them.”
“You’re not the only one involved in all of this. We’re not limited to torturing you.
Maybe we can find someone else that will make you talk.”
“You mean torture them?”
“In your presence. Yes.”
“You’d do that?”
“If it would make you talk. Of course.”
My first thought was Cassie. They’d already trashed her house. They knew a great deal
about her. It wouldn’t take them long to find her and bring her here. And then only God
knows what they might do.
“Exactly,” he said, as if he could read my mind. And the dirty little smile that played
across his face gave me the idea he’d do what he promised. If not him, his men. It might take
them some time to bring her here, but they’d do it. If, that is, she wasn’t here already. Stored
away for just such an occasion as this.
I had to do something to right the ship.
“Instead, what if I give you a short course in artificial life. You listen and ask questions
if you wish. I’ll take you right up to today without leaving anything out. You can record me
on video if you want. I don’t care. You take it to your boss, and if he thinks he has what he
needs, release me and do whatever you’re going to do. Everyone’s happy.”
That obviously had not occurred to him.
“You’d do this?” He asked me.
“But what confidence should I have in what you’ll tell me is true?”
“None, I suppose. Except you take it to your experts. They work it out and see if it’s
what you want.”
“We have no experts. You know as well as I do that the field is still very young. So few
know what’s going on.”
“There are, nonetheless, others.”
“Not enough time.”
“There’s a deadline?”
“For those who want the information there is.”
“Above my pay scale.”
“Give it a try?” I asked.
He studied me
And we did. His men put up a camera and microphones. Where they got them was
beyond me, but they had them nonetheless.
And then I spent several hours going through the basics of A-Life. I left out the names
of the progenitors to avoid those still living from getting involved. It took time, and Gutman
had many questions. I ended it without any lies, including my latest thoughts on the matter.
I left out Buster’s phone call. Ended with a kind of summary.
“Someone then built one of the first truly open-ended artificial life systems. A
biologist seduced into computer programming. With me so far?”
He smiled a little, apparently not getting my intended insult.
“Open ended here means that his idea involved no particular end result. Except,
I let that sink in.
“He built an evolving system, where initially simple digital creatures would evolve
into more complex ones. These creatures contained simple lines of code that enabled what
biologists called genotype and phenotype behaviors.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Genotypes run on DNA. Built-in processes inherited from previous generations.
Phenotypes react to environments. One perspective from the inside, the other, the outside.”
“He began with a creature containing instructions on how to self-replicate. And
placed it into a kind of digital soup. An environment.”
“He called his first creature the Ancestor, and placed it in the soup. Since the
Ancestor’s children inherited its instructions, they could reproduce as well. Soon he had
nearly filled the environment beyond the soup with such creatures. Since he included in his
Ancestor a possibility for mutation, simple random accidents, some of the offspring were
different than the original Ancestor.”
I waited for questions, but apparently had done a good enough job to continue his
“The creatures struggled with one another for survival. Occasionally the mutants
survived better than precise descendents from the Ancestor. As a result, the mutants took
over. They too produced more mutants. Now he had a diverse population of different
creatures, each vying for dominance. For survival. As this continued, the creatures developed
more sophisticated ways to combat other creatures, and so on. He had built a simple
Darwinian evolutionary system. Of course, I’ve left off a lot of detail here. This is a simplified
version of what became a very complex process.”
“’So what’ I left out the details? Or ‘so what’ is important about all this?”
“Both, actually, but more the latter.”
“Without putting in what we call fitness tests, he’d created a wonderland of
unpredictable life, surviving within a container. Just like we have on earth with biological
“And what does this have to do with your research?”
“Everything. I’ve based what I do on these basic concepts. And many others like
“Yours differs how?”
“We start with nothing but primordial soup. No injection of a preconceived
programmed creatures. We begin from scratch. Simple mathematical equations, called non-
linear because once they produce output they cannot be reversed engineered.”
“Because they produce chaos. More or less like we imagine the Big Bang might have
done. In other words, unlike many others who begin at a point where life could have
emerged, we begin at square one. Assuming, of course, that life developed on earth and
didn’t arrive pre-built from other worlds. In other words, from the basic recombination of
basic hydrogen atoms. Ready to evolve into helium, carbon, and so on.”
“Very difficult to replicate a process that may have taken fourteen billion years in the
universe in a reasonable amount of time on a computer, even moving at incredible speeds.
And, there are so many variables that we don’t know about. Keep coming up with nothing
that resembles life as we know it.”
“You’ve come up with a solution to this problem.”
“How do you know that?”
“Let’s say I just do.”
“It hasn’t been tested.”
“It’s being tested now.”
“Okay. Say you’re right. So what. I have no idea whether it works or not.”
“Tell me what you’ve come achieved.”
I looked around the room to see if I’d missed any way to escape this mess. None
“Came up with a plan to look for creatures as members of chaos rather than as external
He looked lost. “And this works?”
“Well, it won’t prove anything special. Like this was how evolution worked. But it
gives me a starting point. In other words, I’ve been hacking away at thousands of non-linear
equations not knowing whether one would work better than another. And none were
working. By understanding better what I’m looking for, I’ve realized that it’s been right in
front of me all along.”
“I don’t know whether it works or not.”
“And if it does work?”
“It will produce what I call D-Life.”
“Digital Life. As opposed to B-Life. Biological life. As far as I’m concerned, both are
different forms of the same thing. One not more alive than the other.”
“We’ll debate that another time.”
“And what could your D-Life produce?”
“Almost anything. It wouldn’t jump out of the computer screen and attack you if
that’s what you mean. You won’t suddenly have two computers where you previously had
one. But in its domain, it could probably do some serious problem solving. Or, of course, cause
some serious damage. And there’s a lot of areas between those two extremes.”
“So powerful it could wipe out other computer programs?”
“More than likely. I have no way to determine that. At least in advance. Nor do I have
any desire to create viruses. If that’s what you mean.”
”So you keep it contained.”
“I do. I experiment with computers within computers, so that they can’t access the
outside world. Just share the same CPU and memory. No escaping.”
“And what would these little critters do if they did escape?”
“No doubt, if they worked as predicted, they’d make every attempt possible to
dominate their environment. Unless one had some kind of advance notice. Enough time to
build a superior agent or antivirus of some kind. Otherwise, they’d destroy whatever
intended use the larger environment had. Make it their own. And God only knows what their
intent might be.”
“Although still contained within a computer?”
“Of course. I can’t imagine it escaping that environment. It’s digital after all. No
matter how sophisticated it might eventually appear.”
“Yes. Although one would never use it for any other purpose than to study life
processes. After all, to do otherwise would only be destructive. Scientists are not interested in
“Except for nuclear weapons, eh.”
“This is not a nuclear weapon. And we’re not in a world war.”
“So you think. Times change.”
In the rush of my explanation, I’d forgotten to whom I spoke. I didn’t know exactly
what he represented. But I couldn’t imagine it as constructive.
“You’ve been very helpful, Professor Francis. Very helpful.”
I guessed we’d finished. Gutman looked both well taught and confused.
“Where’s the code,” he asked me.
“In my head.” I’d left out the part involving my students.
“Will we be able to use it? When you give it to us, that is.”
“No. There’s no interface. And it’s not complete. I’ve not had time to implement it
“Then what good is it?”
“I’ve told you what I know. Exactly and truthfully. Everything. It may take months or
even years to discover if my predictions bear fruit or die on the vine.”
Something buzzed in his pocket. I could hear it. He pulled out his phone and talked
briefly. Once again in a language I didn’t understand.
“We’re going to have visitors,” he said.
“The one I imagine you’ve been waiting to meet.”
“The big man.”
“Bigger than me. At least in terms of status.”
The time had arrived. My waiting was over. Whoever walked down that staircase next
would be the mastermind behind everything that had happened to me. The twelfth disciple.
Judas Iscariot. The betrayer. Not an apostle. Cassie? Why had I thought that of her? Patton?
Not likely. Jackson? He’d had the inside track given his presence all along. Maybe Gene
Thurman, the father. I’d never had a chance to talk with him. Maybe Doris? Fat chance. She’d
disappeared around the time things really heated up. Buster? Carmen? Another member of
my research group? Not impossible. Of course, I couldn’t completely discount my attorney
Joe Wise, though I hardly knew him. Mann the DA? Or even Judge Williams? She’d have the
requisite powers to make a lot things happen. Saul? He’d protected me from the cops, but who
knew his actual motives. Actually it was a small town. Maybe they were all in on it. Or at least
some of them. A group rather than an individual? By this time I wasn’t ready to discount the
dead from rising and pronouncing their eternal life in crime. Julia. The one I’d fallen in love
with. Or so Jackson had told me. Even Dolly, her lookalike. None of these seemed likely given
that these headquarters were in Canada. Almost a day away from our little berg in North
Dakota. Hardly a place where one could commute on a daily basis.
The first thing I noticed was that the perpetrator was male. The hairy brownish legs
proved that. Unlikely a suntan earned in the wilds of a mid-continent province in Canada.
Unless by a sun lamp. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not Cassie. And the rest of the body
appeared. I was stunned. Not possible, I told myself. A complete oxymoron. How could it be?
Standing before me was none other than Saul Perlmutter. My Jewish mathematician
friend. Who’d kept me safe from the police? Given me his home to stay in. A bed to sleep.
Meals to eat.
He smiled at me. Malevolently.
“Surprised?” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“Surprised because a Jew wouldn’t or couldn’t become involved with a terrorist cell
made up of militant Muslims? Well you’d be right.”
I stared at him. Not knowing what to say.
“I’m not a Jew, Francis. Though I am Semitic. An Arab to be exact. Not a Jew.”
“But your home. You had a menorah. I saw it there.”
“You did. Unfortunately for you, you miscalculated. Not my home. Not at all my
home. The real Professor Perlmutter is currently basking in the sun in Italy. On a sabbatical.
If you’d done your homework, you’d know that. You didn’t. You took me at my word.
Everything you saw in that house was real. Most everything I told you was true. About him,
though, not me.”
“And you’re behind all this?
“Mostly. Of course, we all report to someone. But I’m the top dog for this part of the
He looked at Gutman, who bowed slightly and took a chair in the corner of the room.
“So now you’re looking at the top dog. I’ve heard all of the nonsense you’ve been
spouting down here. I’m sick of it. You know I’ll kill for what I want. Now give it to me or I’ll
have you shot. Right here. Right now.”
“You won’t do that. You need me.”
“I do. Though not as bad as you think. After all, with you dead, no one else can get the
information either. That’s almost as good as having it. The important thing is, if I don’t get it,
they don’t get it either.”
“The rest of the world. That’s who.”
“Okay. Listen, I’m happy to give you what you want. I’ve always been happy to do
that. But, honest to God, yours or mine, I have no idea what you want. Beyond what I’ve told
you on video, which you’ve probably just seen.”
“I believe you.”
“Then what can I do?”
“Pretend you’re a terrorist. Can you do that?”
“Unlikely. But I’ll give it a try.”
“If you’re a terrorist, what’s the most valuable but yet vulnerable thing on the planet?”
“I don't think that way. Have no idea.”
“Think that way. If you wanted to unleash something that would send us back to the
Stone Age, what would you do?”
“Get a few nukes and bombs away!”
“No. That would pollute everything. Including you. What if you weren’t suicidal?”
“Aren’t you guys all suicidal?”
“No. Not the smart ones. You think Bin Laden was suicidal? You think he was going to
wrap himself in a bomb and get blown up to get his point across? Not on your life. The smart
ones want to live the good life. Just like anyone else. They recruit those whose lives are so
destitute that the thought their families might have it better make them blow themselves up
to do it.”
“Back to my original question, then. What’s the most vulnerable thing on earth?”
“The White House. Bomb the White House.”
“Not even close.”
“I really haven’t given this much thought.”
“For sure. But give it some now. It’s important that you do.”
“Okay. The weather.”
“Sure. Figure out some way to change the weather. Make it so that your enemies
starve to death in deserts, and your friends, if you have any, can eat all they want.”
“Interesting. Though not close either.”
“I give up.”
“No you don’t. Try again.”
“Rule the seas. Commerce. Control the food and water supplies. Make them beg to
I was getting delusional from all this talk.
“Okay, then, here it comes,” he said.
“Not sure I understand.”
“What’s on the Internet?”
“Lots of things. So what?”
“Not lots of things, Will. Nearly everything’s on the Internet. What if it went down?
Like really down. For good. Or at least for a damn long time.”
“Not sure. But it would be a mess.”
“A mess? It would be a catastrophe. We depend on it. Everyone does. Even Third
World countries. Bound to that single entity. We buy and sell things there. We communicate
there. The banks do business there. About the only thing we can’t do is eat, screw, and sleep
there. And a lot of people spend so much time on line they might as well be eating, screwing,
and sleeping there.”
“And?” I asked him.
“How could someone bring it down?”
“Some kind of ‘worm,’ I suppose.”
“Right. Although worms can’t really harm it. They can maybe bring down a certain
site or hub. Not the web itself. For that we’d need something special. Something unique.
Something no one is prepared to counteract. Hasn’t been anticipated.”
“Catch them by surprise.”
“But I’m sure that’s been tried.”
“It has. But they failed. The Internet’s like an Interstate road system. Take out one
hub, say Denver, and, except for the sites in Denver, you could still reach every other place
on the planet via some other route. May take a fraction of a second longer because of the
circuitous ways taken, but you’d get there. Therefore, while it may be hard to believe,
bringing the Web down could take months, maybe even a year, during which thousands of
antivirus experts could solve the riddle of the virus and fix everything.”
“Okay. Then what?”
“Viruses, whether biological or digital, are parasites. They need already living cells or
functioning programs in order to actually do anything. Not the same with what you’ve
created. Your creatures feed on information. And they’re insatiable and virtually invisible.
Thus, they could, given the right circumstances, ‘eat’ the Internet. Their waste would be
indecipherable chaos. No way to reverse-engineer it back to even a semblance of the original.
Destructive? You can’t imagine how much.”
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“Never mind how. I know. Your process eats indiscriminately. And mutates. An
antivirus may kill a few of them, but they’ll just develop into something else. Dominance. No
“Okay, then what?”
“With everything down, whoever’s the best prepared survives as winner. The world’s
strongest survive, Will.”
“And you say I’ve done it?”
“You’ve proved it. You’ve created digital life. Not the same kind of life as you and me.
But real life nonetheless. In silico, not in vitro. Right?”
I was astonished he knew the words. We had used them for years in A-Life. But ours
was such a small field, I hadn’t considered anyone else paying attention. Apparently someone
“Everything on the Internet is food for your little digital guys. And what your little
lifelings leave behind is chaotic and indecipherable. Gibberish. So how long do you figure it’ll
“For your life to turn our organized virtual world into mush.”
“No idea. Not sure it would work. You’d have to build an interface.”
“I have plenty of programmers. Not a problem. How many of your gizmos would it
take to devour the whole thing in, say, a day?”
“A billion maybe.”
“How about one hundred billion? It’s just memory, Will. How about a hundred billion
“I see your point.”
“Do you? Really? We can bring the entire world to its knees in minutes. And no way to
retaliate. Where are we after all? We’re not a country. Can’t find us on the map. We’re
everywhere. And we’ll rule everything.”
“What about clouds? The storage places that keep all of this data safe.”
“Safe? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“They’re surrounded by bunkers and security guards. You’ll never get them.”
“You’ve forgotten that they two are basically digital. They may have virus protectors,
and the like, but your little monsters will eat them as well. All the world’s digital knowledge
turns into junk.”
“You’re a megalomaniac.”
“Thank you. A compliment. It’s exactly what I am.”
“But what will you rule when all this occurs? A Stone Age people maybe. So what?”
“A Stone Age people are better than a few terrorists. I could guide the world by
keeping a new Internet working for myself. I’d be a God, not a King.”
I had no response to that. After all, what do you say to someone so perverted as to
think that ruling the world, no matter the consequences, was a goal worth achieving?
“One thing I don’t understand. Why did you kill for this? I was going to publish it all
in due time anyway.”
“That’s exactly why we had to kill. You would publish your results. The scientific way.
We couldn’t let that happen.”
“I won’t do it.”
“Do whatever it is you want me to do.”
“You’ve already done it, Will. You’ve already discovered the magic bullet. All that’s
left is to use it. I don’t need you anymore.”
“Yes you do.”
“Because I can stop them from working.”
“I don't believe it.”
“But not if you’re dead.”
“A twelfth rule?”
“A revised form of Asimov’s three laws of robotics.”
“How does that work? Those laws don’t cover things like the Internet.”
“So how did you program them differently?”
“I don’t follow. Wait. You developed a fitness test?”
“For this rule only. The rule develops over time, and through many generations.
Somehow they figure out they’re harming their creator.”
“But you don’t know exactly how?”
“No. Emergence. Lots of zeros and ones. Means nothing to me.”
“And you think they’ll protect the Internet?”
“I know they will.”
“You’ve tried it?”
“On a small scale. With a local access network version. Just in case it didn’t work.
Didn’t want what you have in mind to occur accidentally.”
“Without this twelfth rule, they’ll do what I want?”
“Again, never tried it on the scale you’re proposing. You only get one shot so see if it
works or not. I wasn’t willing to take that chance.”
“So now what?”
“Nothing. You let me go. Your game’s up.”
“Not yet it isn’t. We still have you.”
Suddenly I heard soft sounds from above. The first floor. Wood creaking under the
weight of someone moving there. And I wasn’t the only one who’d heard it. Gutman grunted
some kind of order I couldn’t understand.
Then all hell broke loose. Four men arrived. Not down the stairs. Nor anywhere from
above. Out of what looked like closet doors in the back of the room. I’d been too busy to
notice. Each of them somewhat resembled the man who’d last assaulted and nearly killed me.
But these guys were covered with belts of guns and munitions. Ready for World War III.
They approached the stairwell and crouched down behind the benches and various other
furniture available there.
I ducked down behind a long bench in front of me. Not much protection from bullets,
though made of solid wood. Better than a couch or chair would have been. Saul, or whatever
his real name was, joined the heavily armed men already in positions around the stairs.
Gutman stayed where he was. Didn’t consider himself cannon fodder, I guess. I didn’t envy
anyone coming down the stairs into this potential firestorm. Everyone had their weapons
drawn and ready to fire. Except me.
I heard more sounds of voices from above and the creaking of old wood floorboards.
Whoever was up there no longer cared about keeping their presence secret. I heard the guns
around me cock, and bullets sliding into chambers. And I hunkered down as close to the floor
as possible. I thought of trying to alert what I assumed were friendly forces on the ground-
level floor coming to get me. But who knew? They could be a competing group of terrorists.
Or the Canadian Mounties. Or even Patton finally coming to the rescue.
Like the rest of them I waited for the dam to burst. The seconds ticked by without a
sound to disturb them. A grenade ready to explode in my hands. But nothing happened. I
couldn’t imagine anyone just opening the door to the basement and walking into this trap. It
was too obvious. Unless, of course, no one up there had any idea what was awaiting them
down here. Outmanned, outgunned, and outprepared, I had no idea how to avoid the
massacre that was certain to occur. And, even with a plan, how could it work given the
Suddenly, I no longer gave a damn. I carefully reviewed the positions of those nearest
me. It didn’t seem reasonable to attack them. They, after all, had loaded and ready to fire
guns. All I had was Bokator. At the same time, they were concentrated on the perceived
enemy from above. I was behind them. An advantage not worth passing up.
Before I had a chance to talk myself out of it, I quietly got to my knees. I crawled
across the floor as slowly as possible. When I got to the last man in line, I slammed an elbow
directly into the back of the neck. He went right to sleep. Maybe for good. I could hear the
vertebrae in his neck snap like a twig in a storm might. Elbows are powerful weapons. And, if
the victim doesn’t scream, it’s quick and almost soundless. I’d done a good job. No one
noticed, so concentrated were they on stairs to the floor above.
I dropped down and hid again, this time behind both the bench and the man I’d taken
down. Uninterested in his current condition, though knowing either way he was out for the
count. For this battle anyway. I took a deep breath and eyed my next target. Surprised by
how calm I was, given the situation.
I crawled my way over behind the guy on my left this time, and without a second lost
or sound made, I kneed him in the middle of his back while simultaneously forcing my arm
around his neck in a choke hold meant to kill. Break his neck. Unfortunately, he fired his gun.
Alerting everyone else to the menace in their midst. Me. They turned with weapons at the
Without really thinking, I kept my captive between me and them. Ducked my head
behind his. Of course, I didn’t have time to completely disappear and felt the impact of two
bullets hit his body. Meant for me. Or maybe not. They could have thought he’d turned on
them. Maybe they didn’t care one way or the other. I thought my defense a neat trick. I’d
seen it work in films, though figured it a trick. Useless in real battles. I’d been lucky. Or so I
thought, as I rubbed my stomach and felt something warm oozing there. The bullets had
penetrated him and hit me. Too late to worry about that now.
I reached around him and grabbed his gun. Aimed it as best I could with one arm, and
put two rounds in the man to the right of Saul. Clean hits. An accident for sure. I wasn’t field
tested in firearms. But it worked. He jerked back immediately into the wall and slid down it
leaving wide streaks of fresh blood as he did. Jesus, I thought. What was I going to think
about this when and if I survived?
Two down. Three to go. Unfortunately they still had more weapons than me. And I
couldn’t risk my lack of skills against any one of them, no less three.
That was the moment that things changed in my favor. For just as the remaining
paramilitary aimed in my direction, those from above opened the door at the head of the
stairs and began firing automatic weapons into the basement. Saul was the first to catch one.
Right in the head. Full on. He bent himself backward from the force and hit the floor like a
sack of bricks. And now there were two.
Gutman had fallen off his chair and rolled to the wall. Unarmed and visibly shaking
from seeing so many of his colleagues down, I didn’t figure he’d be much of a threat. Even
given that, I’m not exactly sure how the next few minutes went. Guns fired. Bodies fell. I
whacked a few people with elbows and knees, and head butted someone who may have been
one of the good guys. Couldn’t tell. Everyone looked pretty much the same. Armed to the
Then, someone yelled ‘cease fire,’ and very slowly the smoke from the guns cleared. I
could see Patton waving his hands like a referee in a football game. Couldn’t hear anything at
all. Guns shooting in such a small resonant space had deafened me. I could hear my heart
beating though. So rapidly I thought it might be all over.
And, of course, Patton immediately cuffed and arrested me. For what, I couldn’t hear.
Maybe disturbing the peace. Who knew? I fell back on the couch, my original position, and
tried to make heads or tails of what had just happened. It seemed the good guys had won. But
who were the good guys? I thought I had a general idea, though having never been told what
was going on, I couldn’t be sure.
I checked my wounds. Try as I might I couldn’t find anything but blood on my
clothes. Apparently the bullets hadn’t penetrated the man who’d so unwittingly protected
me. I’d apparently gathered some stray blood of unknown origin. Not hard to understand,
given the death that pervaded the room around me.
The whole thing had happened so quickly I hadn’t had time to worry about it. Now it
was over, the enormity of what had just happened enveloped me like a bad winter’s two feet
of snow. So I simply closed my eyes and pretended myself into a quieter and gentler place. In
the California Sierras. Camping with my father. Watching the night sky come alive after dark
with millions of stars. The Milky Way overhead. Jupiter and its moons. The Andromeda
Galaxy, which at ten thousand feet you can usually find pretty easily, even without a
telescope. A fire at our feet and some beer in hand. Life was good.
When I opened my eyes again, Cassie was there. Kneeling on the floor and holding my
hand. Smiling. The bodies were being photographed and removed from the premises. I could
hear a bit now. People moving. Sometimes I could make out a word or two. Patton ordering
his minions to get on with their duties.
“You okay?” she asked. For some reason I could hear her voice quite well.
“Fine,” I said, not really knowing what I was talking about. But I couldn’t feel any pain
at the moment, and couldn’t remember actually being hit by anyone. My elbows and knees
hurt. But, I reminded myself, those injuries I’d caused myself.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“We found them, and you helped us take them out.”
“We found them? You a part of all this? What have I missed?”
“Sit back and rest for a minute. Then I’ll tell you about it.”
And I did. Rest that is. The banging in my head was slowing down and my heart rate
returned to a more normal pace. And I closed my eyes again to find my dad and the Sierras.
When I opened my eyes again, Cassie was still where she’d been when I’d closed them.
“Did you follow me?” I asked her.
“Follow you? Follow you where?”
“Canada? What are you talking about, Francis? We’re only a few blocks from where you
live. What’s Canada got to do with anything?”
I thought it over. We’d gone a very long distance. Taken most of the day. We’d passed
the line over into Canada. That I remembered clearly.
“They drove me north. I was lying in the back of a pickup. I saw a sign say ‘Now
entering North Dakota.’ Since I was looking backward at it, all I could imagine was Canada.
We’re way too far from any other border.”
“And did you go through customs, too?”
That stumped me. Hadn’t considered it.
“Canada’s a foreign country, Will. You’d have to go through customs. Or else you were
on a very lonely country road. Which wouldn’t have a sign telling you about which state you
I thought it over. More than likely true.
Patton came over, having heard me talking. Cassie stood up and looked around at the
“They drove you around in circles, Francis. Probably planted the sign to confuse you.”
He stared at me as he spoke. Maybe he was afraid I’d escape again.
“Then where am I?”
“Where do you think you are?”
“In the basement. He never told you he had a basement did he?”
“But why would he? It’s where he hid from us. And it wasn’t his house in the first
“Right in front of our noses.”
“Your nose, Francis. Your nose! I didn’t live in this house for a couple of days. Sitting
right on top of a terrorist cell.”
I granted him his day in the sun.
He walked out on me then. Like hanging up the phone.
Cassie replaced him. Looking a little shyly at me.
“What’s wrong,” I asked her.
“I think I owe you an apology.”
“For telling you some white lies.”
“Like Julia was my half-sister.”
“She wasn’t your half-sister?
“Well, a very close relative. Not my half-sister.”
“What? You? Are you kidding me? You were dying. I held you in my arms. Didn’t they
“No, actually, they didn’t.”
“No one shot me.”
“But I felt your blood. You weren’t breathing. I saw them take you away. With a sheet
over your head.”
“All true. Though not true at the same time.”
Too much new information all at once. I felt a little dizzy.
“The whole thing was a setup. We knew you had something they wanted. We also
knew you were an academic scientist. That you’d be happy to give anyone anything. We had
to convince you of the importance of the game being played.”
“So you acted the part.”
“Pretty convincing, huh?”
More than that I’d say. Although I didn’t tell her that.
“But the blood?”
“Easily faked. We got it from one of the butchers in town.”
“Who else have you been acting?”
“What?” Expecting her to tell me her apparent affections for me were as false as Julia’s
“Dolly?” I asked.
“Yes, her too. That’s why all three of us looked so much alike. It made things easier
than using fancy disguises, which could be discovered easily.”
“But you and Dolly are, rather were so different.”
“All in the acting, Will.”
“That explains some things, though.”
“No one appeared disturbed by their deaths. You, for instance. You’d just lost two
half-sisters and didn’t seem bothered in the least.”
“I guess my acting isn’t as good as I thought.”
“And what about the Doris-Doris thing, with Dolly as a nickname for one of them? Too
hard to believe.”
“Sometimes the things that are most unbelievable are the easiest to swallow.”
“And, of course, Patton knew all this.”
“Actually it was his idea.”
“You’ve known him a long time then. Somebody you trust.”
“I do. And I’ve know him a very long time.”
“Like brother and sister you might say. Actually you wouldn’t have to say ‘might.’ He
is my brother.”
“Jesus. He’s your brother?”
”No. Jesus is not my brother. Patton is.”
I had to pause to keep up.
“Are Norma and Gene your parents? Or was that fake, too.”
“Our parents died when we were very young. Both Norma and Gene are police. In on
it from the beginning.”
“So. What else?”
“I’m not a psychiatrist. Nor a court appointee.”
Now she’d tell me she was a corporate lawyer. Or the head of a large multinational
corporation. Some such thing.
“I’m a librarian. Who studied acting in college.”
A librarian? This was nuts. I could have made a list of a hundred professions, and that
wouldn’t have been on it. A librarian?
Before she could tell me that my lawyer was actually a truck driver from Peru, I said,
“I get the part where you play Julia and Monica. But what about the phone book, office,
secretary, and so on? You as a psychiatrist.”
“The phone book was easy. Small town. Small book. Patton had them make a special
edition, just for you. Not expensive using computers these days.”
“And the office? The secretary?”
“I have an office and a secretary. Head librarian. But it’s in the back of the library.
Separate outside entrance from the stacks. I gave my secretary a sample psychiatrist form to
give you. The rest was easy.
“So nothing was as it seemed?”
“Actually, I do live here. That would have been hard to fake. I also work here. I’m just
not what you thought I was. That’s all. Though this was my first time helping the police. I
work mostly at a desk. Computers and all that.”
“No kidding. I suppose our, whatever you call it, was also a deception.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Oh, the dresses. Those?”
“Those were not faked. My feelings for you are as real as they hopefully seemed to
you. Believe me.”
“How do you figure I can? After all you’ve admitted. Remember the Cry Wolf story?”
“I do. But, believe it or not, everything else was necessary to get these guys. What
possible difference would it have made were I not to have made myself, shall we say, available
to you? It was real, Will. Count on it.”
“But at dinner that night in the restaurant. A bunch of lies?”
“We talked about our lives. Nothing I said there was a lie. Only lying about what I’ve
been doing professionally. Think about it.”
“What other surprises are in store for me?”
“Nothing much. Except we still can’t find Doris.”
“She wasn’t you?”
“No. That would have been hard to fake.”
“Did she know who you were?”
“Yes. She knew some of it.”
“Probably skipped town. Scared shitless. Like I would have been.”
“But you know Bokator, or whatever it is.”
“Doesn’t work well with a cannon aimed at your chest. Martial arts are great for
combat without weapons. Can even work with weapons given close contact. Like tonight.
However, bombs and large guns have the same effect on me as they would on you.”
We fell silent for a minute.
“What about the car bomb, the house ransackings, all the peripheral stuff?” I asked her.
“Probably meant to distract our attention from you. And likely to confuse you as well.
We may never know. After all, we’ve got Abdul on so many other charges, we don’t need
“The big fat man? You couldn’t have missed him.”
“Oh yeah. Gutman.”
“Never mind. Long story not worth telling.”
She looked a little confused.
“How did you find me? How did you figure out they were here?” I asked.
“The cop out back of your apartment fell asleep. Woke in time to get the license plate
of the pickup. We caught the trail about a hundred miles west of here. It ultimately led us to
Saul’s place. Took us awhile to gather a force together and plan our assault. They’d parked
two lookouts that we had to take out before we could approach the house without having Saul
“What’s his real name?”
“Don’t know. Though it certainly isn’t Saul.”
“So they lived down here in the basement. Waiting until they could get me?”
“Why wait so long? Why try to beat the shit out me? Why not grab me the first day
and get it out of me?”
“Not sure. We think one of them, an American actually, befriended one of your
graduate students, and she told him that things weren’t going very well. They waited. Then,
suddenly she said things were going really well. That provided the incentive for a change of
“Buster implicated in this?”
“No. I doubt she knew what she was doing. Just flattered by the attention of the guy
with her. Quite a catch. I’ve seen him. He’s a doll.”
“But a deadly doll, apparently.”
“For sure. Though she didn’t know that. We’ll check her out, but I doubt we’ll find
anything except a young graduate student who talked about her work with an interested
“I always thought . . .”
“She was lesbian? Don’t think so. But you shouldn’t stereotype, Francis. Doesn’t become
She was right, of course, so I let it pass.
“And the Internet thing?” I asked her.
“What about it?”
“Would that really bring the world to its knees?”
“You’re the computer scientist. Will. You tell me.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t particularly worldly or socially conscious. But I understood
the basics of network theory.
“We do everything on the net these days,” I began. “Think about the Arab Spring?
People everywhere can now communicate with the entire world. Send videos anywhere. No
way to hide the inhumanity toward humanity any longer. World opinion can change abruptly
based on blogs. We’re still pitting country against country, but that will change soon. As we
find that our networking makes us one world. The Internet is the most powerful political tool
in history. Destroying it would have catastrophic effects.”
“Yes,” she said.
We went quiet for a minute, then she asked, “So what about destroying the Internet?
Could your program actually do that?”
“Don’t know. Maybe. Saul seemed to think so. Though I confused him by making up a
bit about me having a twelfth rule that would prevent it from doing so.”
“You made that up?”
“You heard the video already?”
“We saw it simultaneously as you made it. We had a link to their system.”
More of an audience than I imagined. Somehow it made me think back to how I might
have looked and sounded to Patton and the rest. And to Cassie.
“Can your quasi-organisms become intelligent?” she interrupted my thoughts.
“Samuel Butler wrote something quite interesting. ‘Life,’ he said. ‘is the art of drawing
sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.’ If you buy that, then all life, to an extent, is
intelligent. As humans, we’re more specialized in that department.”
She smiled. I changed the subject.
“So tell me why they blew up Jackson’s car?”
“I think they did that to convince you of the seriousness of their intent. Remember,
they hadn’t murdered anyone yet.”
I had many more questions, but I’d lost my will to ask them. Besides, it was time for
Patton and his boys to have at me again. Tell them my story for the umteenth time. Maybe I
could sleep through it. At least he finally took the cuffs off and told me all charges had been
“What? So you’re telling me there isn’t a twelfth law of life?” Jackson and I were
getting blasted in my apartment after the investigation wound down. About three in the
“Nope. No twelfth law. At least according to me.”
“Then you made that whole thing up about your little gizmos not chewing away at
the Internet because it wouldn’t harm its creator. Or the equivalent.”
“But there is a twelfth day of Christmas. By now the thirteenth day of Christmas.
Thirteen shots of Beam? And I didn’t bother to mention the Morris Worm.”
“Robert Morris’s famous Internet Worm. A program that brought the young Internet
to its knees by slowing it to useless speeds. Actually intended for something else. To estimate
the current size of the net at that point in time. In other words, what these terrorists thought
was going to destroy the net had actually been invented over twenty years ago.”
“Then yours program couldn’t actually do it?”
“I have no idea. No one does. If my students prove it works, which they haven’t yet,
the current incarnation could probably eat its way through information. Maybe do some
serious damage. I doubt it could destroy the Internet though. But who knows about the next
“What do you mean?”
“No idea what future generations might do.”
Jackson stared at me, obviously confused.
“You don’t know what it’s going to do next?” he asked.
“We’re dealing with digital ‘life’ here. If I knew what would happen next, I wouldn’t be
life, I’d just have another tool. Nothing wrong with tools, except they’re not life.”
“You’re a scientist and you want to create something whose future actions you can’t
“Exactly. Open ended as Thomas Ray would call it.”
“Just keeps on developing according to a self-organized plan that you can’t predict.”
“And why are you doing this again?”
“Some say we’re playing God. Others that we’re understanding life better. Me, I think
we just love playing with fire.”
“Except it didn’t really pose the threat that these guys thought it did.”
“No. At least I’d bet that way. We’ll see. But not with the Internet, of course.”
We each took another drink of Beam. Matching shot for shot.
“Oops,” Jackson said.
“Well it probably means nothing.”
“Well some guys came through the building a couple of months back and I told them
what you were doing.”
“Don’t know. They said one of their sons was considering going to the university here.
Was interested in computer science, and in particular A-life.”
“Well I told them about your work.”
“I may have made it sound a bit more exotic than it actually was.”
“You know. University enrollment is way down. We’re all recruiters in a way.”
“So what did you say?”
“Nothing much. Just that I felt like a very large bear might one day emerge from
your office door and attempt to eat the building.”
“Nothing wrong in that.”
“They asked more questions. I suppose I made myself dangerous.”
“You. I had enough knowledge about what you do to make myself dangerous.”
“But you didn’t know anything more about my work than what we advertise in the
catalog. You couldn’t have told them much.”
“I think it was more in the ‘way’ I said it.”
“With plenty of gusto, I imagine.”
He emptied another shot glass. I followed suit.
“Yes. We need students. I told them you had some pretty powerful digital life forms
growing in there. That they could accomplish nearly anything.”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“Until this past week, we couldn’t raise a dime in funding with what we had in there.
Just a lot of code not going anywhere.”
“I have a lot of faith in you, Francis.”
“So you think those guys believed you? That it’s your fault that things got out of
“That’s what I trying my best not to say.”
“It’s not working.”
“Well, how would I know those guys were terrorists?”
“Probably weren’t. Only knew the terrorists and agreed with their point of view.”
“Same result. Either way.”
I thought I’d let him stew in his own juices. He did. And we drank ourselves into
As I tried to sleep that night, I remembered back to what Saul, or whatever his name
actually was, had said about my work. As evil as he’d turned out, he was smart. No doubt
about that. His suggestion of the three rules might hold some merit.
Mobility, evolution, and specialization, I thought to myself. The three laws of life. Do
all things move? Certainly they do within themselves. Most I could think of did within their
environment as well. Although some, like bushes and trees, move very little. Evolution, the
ability to contend with changing environments and win over competing species was a no
brainer. Specialization. Not so clear. It suggested that while individuals make significant
breakthroughs, social networks actually create the changes. Could societies make great
breakthroughs as well? Without the great individual minds? Maybe that had some merit. The
three-law version left out a lot of the nuts and bolts of life. The eating, excreting, and so on.
Though once you enter that arena, you were bound to leave out thousands of other things,
too. Staying away from that kind of bean counting could offer some serious advantages. I
vowed to present it to my group at our next meeting. Maybe by then we’d have some
verifiable results beyond those they’d told me about already. And I fell asleep. Finally.
The next morning I was sick. Not sick sick. Alcohol sick. Jackson was somehow
immune from all this and seemed normal. Had some kind of built-in hormone to pass the
poison through his system faster. Probably had hangovers when he slept.
I spent the day recovering. And, as evening approached, I prepared for my date with
Cassie. We’d made it the night before.
After a few more quips from Jackson about making up for a lack of dates with an
overabundance of them, I used the Rent a Heap and drove to her place. It still reeked and still
had springs ready to surface from under the seat covers. But it drove nicely and got me
As usual, I arrived early. A new storm was on the way and a few snowflakes drifted
down out of the night sky like they did in those glass bubbles you buy with reindeers in
them when you turn them upside down. A beautiful night with a now gibbous moon lighting
up the landscape with intermittent shadows. As the incoming clouds covered it periodically.
Cassie met me at the door already stuffed in her heavy overcoat, ready for dinner. She
had cleaned her house somewhat, though clearly not completely.
I held the door open for her. She shook her head back and forth.
“I thought we were going out to dinner,” I said.
She shook her head some more. Her hair flopping side to side as she did.
It was getting cold, so I stepped inside and closed the door behind me.
And then she showed me what she had in mind. By opening her coat.
“Are you sure you’re a librarian?” I asked her.