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THE MEYERSCO HELIX
by Andrew McCoy
A sample chapter you get nowhere else.
The curtain bowed and bent and the man behind it lurched at her. Stella, her mouth already open, screamed, screamed again, kept screaming. Her heart ceased to beat. The man, smelling like a plague, tried to put his hand over her mouth. Stella bit his palm, which tasted vile, and screamed again.
Then she saw the forefinger erect in front of her eyes a moment before it touched her lips. Lower, on his palm, blood flowed from her tooth marks. She wiped her blouse across her lips and saw the blood on the sleeve.
This wretched hulk was her gentle Alexander, her Rib. And she had not recognized him!
‘Oh my God, Rib I’m sorry!’ She tried to pull him towards her to hug him and comfort him, but he winced and whimpered as she touched the many sore places on his body. She let go immediately. ‘What have they done to you? Here, sit down.’ She tried to push him down on the bed but he took her hand and pulled her towards the door. He was so eager, trying to smile through the strips of skin hanging from his cheeks, it was pathetic. She wanted to cry. But he would not sit and he was still very strong, pulling her along almost effortlessly to the spare room, to his ‘zoo’. He pushed her into the room and followed, closing the door behind them. Proudly he pointed.
For the moment she saw only the deformed wreck of his hand. There was something more wrong with it than merely broken bones, something more altogether than there should be on a hand... In the infrared light, his fingernails seemed long enough to be transparent, he who had always kept his nails clipped short. ‘What happened to your hand, Rib?’
But he would not listen, jabbing the hand insistently at the glass. She humored him by putting her face close and looking. For a moment, her mind still on Ribicoff’s condition, she did not grasp the significance of the two moles sniffing each other in the burrow, then, as the moles passed nose to tail and turnabout like a country dance, she saw the red hairs across the top of each. And she saw, out of the corner of her eye, the empty trap-cage placed carelessly on top of the big glass box, its door hanging open. She understood.
‘You caught another female Gillian’s Redhair!’ For a moment she wondered if he was insane to think of moles in his condition when he should be in hospital undergoing tests. ‘Rib, that’s wonderful.’
His face cracked open and he nodded.
‘Come, I must see to you.’
He came obligingly, but resisted again when she tried to lead him into the bedroom to lie him down until the ambulance came. He wanted to go into the living room and she followed him. He stood beside the writing desk at the door and tried to operate the answering machine, but his fingers were clumsily uncoordinated, Rib who had always been so gracefully dexterous. Stella understood and did it for him. He was trying to tell her he had heard Clyde Davison’s message. She played it. He did a clumsy, stumbling war dance, the Male triumphantly reincarnated, finally falling flat on his face over a chair. She rushed to him, but already he had risen to his knees and, while she wondered which part of him she could touch without causing further agony, he coiled and flung himself to his feet and away through the door.
In the bedroom she found him sitting on the edge of the bed, sobbing into his hands. She did not know whether the crying jag was from pain or relief at being home.
‘You’re home now and we’ll soon have you fit and well.’
He raked his face with his fingernails and she was horrified to see him open again the barely scabbed marks where heat blisters had burst. She took her nail clippers from the dressing table and sat down beside him, taking hold of his damaged hand as gently as she could. She clipped his nails methodically, quickly, tidily dropping the clippings straight from the clipper into her blouse pocket because she was too far from the bin under the dressing table to drop the waste in there. Then she clipped the nails of his other hand.
‘How did your nails grow so long in only three days?’
He shook his head forlornly.
She was not at all certain he understood the question, only that it was a question and he had no answers. He needed hospital attention.
She rose and bent to swing his legs onto the bed. ‘I’ll call an ambulance. I won’t be long.’
‘He won’t be going to the hospital,’ a voice said flatly behind her.
Stella, her hands under Ribicoff’s knees, stopped raising his legs and, still bent over, turned her head. ‘Why not,’ she asked, before it occurred to her she should be frightened. ‘Who’re you?’
Chuck Sanka came in through the door to the balcony to stand beside Rufus Baden, with Kee immediately behind him. She did not know Baden from anywhere, and did not recognize Sanka immediately as the car salesman who refused to rent her a car, but Kee she would never forget. They were from Dureville and in their misdirected hatred had crippled Ribicoff. And now they were here to settle their fancied score, two of them grinning stupidly and the third glistening gloatingly about the eyes. Stella heaved Ribicoff’s legs up and, as she straightened, pulled out the dresser drawer where she kept her needlework basket. She grasped her dressmaking shears, which were so tall their handles stuck out even when the basket was closed.
‘Oh no, you don’t,’ Sanka said, closing on her and reaching for the scissors.
They didn’t come up the fire escape and over the balcony on a social call. She feinted left. He moved both hands towards the scissors. She stabbed right, leaning hard on the scissors, aiming for his shoulder to inflict maximum shock and pain with minimum chance of doing him fatal injury.
Ribicoff accelerated off the bed like the space shuttle, his head bulleting into Sanka’s stomach. Sanka crashed over backwards, his mouth gasping soundlessly like that of a goldfish in a bowl.
While Ribicoff was off balance, rising, Baden saw his opportunity: he closed both his huge hands around Ribicoff’s broken hand and squeezed hard. Ribicoff screamed and scrabbled for Baden, but Baden put one boot on Ribicoff’s shoulder and held him at the stretch of his leg. Stella, who had lost the scissors that now stood in Sanka’s shoulder with the point stuck in the carpet under him, started forward to help Ribicoff. Kee caught her arm and swung her around by it. As she swung, she managed to kick Baden in the crotch. He dropped Ribicoff’s hand. Ribicoff, suddenly released, fell onto Sanka, driving the air the car salesman had managed to gasp out of his body again in a long-drawn-out sigh. Baden clutched at his crotch and bent over double, stumbling forward in his pain. Kee twisted Stella’s arm up behind her back. His other hand snaked around her chest and squeezed her breast agonizingly.
Through it all, incredulously, she heard her doorbell chime. ‘Someone at the door,’ she said to Kee, ignoring the pain and the outrage of being pawed by such a man, twisting her head around to look at his flushed face and speaking in polite drawing-room tones. ‘Excuse me a moment, will you?’
It almost worked. He relaxed his hold on her arm and she was rising when his evil intentions caught up with the modicum of manners the Army inculcates when it creates an officer a gentleman. He twisted hard, bending her almost double. Stella screamed. Not that she could hear herself. Sanka had now found his breath and screamed blue murder. Ribicoff gave vent to a long ‘Aargh!’ of pain and rage as he rose, stepping all over Sanka, to come to Stella’s aid.
Nor were the people at the door gentle. She heard the crash as they came through without bothering to fetch keys. It was a different sort of noise from the screaming, or perhaps she just felt through her feet the dull base thud as the heavy door fell on the floor — things were confused just then.
It all happened so quickly that, when the new intruders came through the door, Baden, still staggering forward, bent over, head down, clutching his much-kicked private parts, crashed into their point man’s stomach. Greene: Stella recognized him as the FBI agent who first tried to kill her on the highway, and then attempted to cast suspicion on Ribicoff for the destruction of Camp Zaharoff. Greene was not winded by the impact, but he was pushed back a couple of paces by Baden’s weight, and impeded the entry of those behind him. In that momentary hiatus Sanka rolled onto his knees, with a shout pulling the scissors from his shoulder and throwing them at Greene. He missed — the scissors stuck quivering in the hardwood doorjamb — but Greene stopped, blocking the doorway while he drew his pistol.
That was when Stella stomped as hard as she could on Kee’s instep with her medium-height but rather narrow heel. He grunted in pain and crashed her head into the wall. Stars. She dimly sensed, rather than saw, Ribicoff’s arm describe a short, sharp arc — Oh Christ, no, not his jaw again! — and heard her wish subverted by a dull sick thud behind her shoulder. Kee screamed, a high thin sound. Still seeing stars, but knowing her own home well enough to find her bearings in the dark, she spun and pushed Ribicoff through the balcony door.
‘This is a madhouse,’ she shouted where she hoped his ear would be. ‘Hide!’
She pushed Rib onto the fire escape and heard him clatter down it. Behind her someone cursed. She turned and, still not seeing much, found a wrist. She sank her teeth into it as if she intended to see daylight through it. The man shouted and hit her forehead with his other hand clenched into a fist. Another man tried to squeeze past. Stella turned herself and the one she was still grimly clamped onto by her teeth sideways in the doorway. She wedged them fast while, for good measure, she kneed the one trying to squeeze past in the groin. The one whose wrist she gnawed squeezed and twisted her nose; to breathe she opened her mouth and let go his wrist.
The other one squeezed by and crashed away down the fire escape. Stella, gasped for air and tried to spit out the blood in her mouth at the same time — an impossible combination. She was not worried. She gave Ribicoff a three minute start. Even hurt and bewildered, Ribicoff could in that time leave any athlete in the world too far adrift to catch up.
She saw a man on the telephone and pushed the button down to cut him off. ‘Who — the — hell— in — vi — ted — you — to — use — my — phone?’ she gasped at him.
He turned snarling towards her. At any other time, he might have been patrician, charming, reassuring. Now his nose dripped blood on his silk shirt and his fine suit. More than fury, in his eyes there was an emotion she had only recently come to know intimately: fear.
She could not hear what he snarled, but she kept her hand on the button. ‘Find a payphone.’ she said shortly. ‘I’m tired of being bullied by the government’s thugs.’
Why would he not use his cell phone? Did he not want his own government to listen to his intentions for Ribicoff? That thought frightened her more than the assault did.
‘We saved you from a fate worse than death,’ said the man whose wrist she lacerated. He stood against the wall, wrapping his handkerchief around it, the handkerchief was already soaked through. ‘Yesterday your callers beat and raped a woman for giving your boyfriend a drink and food and clothing.’
Greene sat against the doorjamb, in which the scissors still stuck, heaving for air. Of the three original intruders that Stella thought of as Kee’s party, there was no trace, if one discounted the general havoc in her apartment. It was not difficult to conclude that, while the newcomers focused their attention on Ribicoff, Kee’s bunch escaped through the front door, striking a blow at Greene on the way. There was even a trail of blood on the carpet to mark Chuck Sanka’s departure.
Stella smiled thinly. ‘We were doing all right until you interfered.’ Earlier she was frightened out of her wits, but no longer. And the longer they stayed here bandying words with her, the longer before they could join in the chase for Ribicoff. She did not think Kee’s bunch were in the hunt — they would be licking their wounds. As for the single man now chasing Ribicoff, whose face she had not seen though she had kicked him intimately, he was one man and a kick in the testicles would not enhance his speed or endurance. Ribicoff would need the edge that gave him, and any time she could buy him.
It struck her that she should be frightened and shivering instead of aggressive and angry. But she would continue as she started.
Jablonsky peered around the door. ‘What’s going on here? Everybody is complaining about the noise.’
‘The FBI has broken into my house,’ Stella said.
‘Jesus,’ Jablonsky said, looking at the room.
Stella advanced on Greene. ‘Let’s see your warrant before I call the police.’
Jablonsky backed away hurriedly. Dr. Christopher was a big girl, and he was what he liked to think of as medium size. He had never before seen her like this, or even considered her as a possible threat to anyone’s health. But murder was about to be done here — all three men were either on the floor or bleeding, and still she raved for action. Jablonsky’s sci-fi reading matter suddenly flashed him a vision of a bare breasted Stella, bloody sword swirling, rampaging through conquered tribes. There was nothing reassuringly erotic about the image, and he would never again wish he had lived in times when men were men and women...
‘Tomorrow I’ll send up Mrs. Jablonsky to help clear up,’ Jablonsky said and backed out quickly, adding, ‘And I’ll get a carpenter to re-hang the front door.’ It had been torn completely off its hinges which, somewhat belatedly, told Jablonsky that the three men were no mean rampagers themselves. And now they were bloodied and defeated with Dr. Christopher advancing angrily, demanding to see their warrant. It was time for little men to be long gone.
But Greene, though winded and on the floor without energy to rise, had not become a major in the Green Berets or Special Agent in Charge of an important Field Office of the FBI because he was a little man easily deflected.
‘I need no warrant to arrest you for interfering with a police officer in the performance of his duty,’ he snapped. ‘You both heard me read the bitch her rights,’ he added to the other two men who both nodded.
‘It was Ribicoff you wanted,’ Stella said quietly. ‘What’s he charged with? Where’s your warrant for his arrest?’
Greene pushed himself up. ‘You are under arrest for resisting a federal law officer, me, in the performance of my duty, for a murderous assault on Colonel James, for harboring, aiding and abetting a fugitive, and a few other charges I’ll think up when I get around to it. Lady, you’re so deep in shit, the only way you will ever smell clean again is to tell me immediately where Alexander Ribicoff went.’
Stella was shocked to her core. Except for abrasive encounters with the highway police, her experience of law enforcers was limited to— to this bastard calmly trying to kill her on the highway. Whatever, they were treating her as a criminal rather than a victim. She hoped none of her consternation and clammy fear would show on her face. She did not try to smile — that would have been a disaster — but she looked Greene straight in the face.
‘That’s easy,’ Stella said. ‘I want him back as much as you do. He should be in a hospital. But I don’t know where he went.’
The man who had chased Ribicoff came into the room. Stella noticed he was breathing evenly though perspiration stood on his forehead and his shirt was soaked. He immediately took a pistol from a shoulder holster, ejected the clip and started reloading it.
‘Did you get him?’ the man with the blood red handkerchief around his wrist asked.
Colonel! What the devil was this?
‘I fired a few shots at him, but it was dark and he was too far away,’ the darkly handsome young man added without looking up from his work. When he did look up, it was at Stella. ‘If you ever kick me in the balls again, I’ll kill you,’ he said calmly.
Stella had an eerie premonition that that was exactly what it would come to whether she kicked him again or not. The FBI tried to kill her once already, so why should people with military rank, in cahoots with the FBI, hesitate to finish the job? She was shocked more by the irrationality of the response — men do not kill women who merely kick them in the genitals — than by the threat. Among these men it seemed commonplace, almost homely, to threaten to kill someone.
Stella picked up the phone and started dialing, but the patrician with the bloodied face pushed the button down.
‘No lawyer,’ Greene said.
‘It’s your career,’ Stella said mildly. It was a threat she more than once heard Ribicoff use with obstructive bureaucrats; she didn’t realize that the mildly-voiced comment was a threat until the second or third time she heard him make it.
The man addressed as Colonel said, his voice cultured and his tone courteous, ‘This is more than just a matter of careers, Dr. Christopher. It is quite literally a matter of life and death.’
‘All right,’ Stella said, ‘tell me why Greene tried to kill me and why you want to kill Ribicoff?’
But Greene addressed the black eyed young man ramming the reloaded clip back into his pistol. ‘Didn’t you even wing him, Falco? Are you sure he’s clear?’
‘I looked for blood, pal. When a three-fifty-seven magnum even wings a man, he falls and stays down for a while. As for getting clear away, those lanes back there should be combed by the police.’
‘No,’ said the patrician firmly. He dabbed with an Irish linen handkerchief at his nose. The blood was already dry and barely any of it stuck to the handkerchief. He looked around the bedroom. ‘We’ll go into the living room.’
Stella did not protest that this was her home. She would listen and learn. She led the way and sat down in an easy chair in the living room. Greene walked to the phone on the writing desk by the door. He glared at Stella’s neighbors standing curiously in the passage, laying fear on them until they clucked, cast their eyes down and went away. Then he said to the patrician, ‘If we can’t use the police, we’ll have to bring a forensic team down from DC. Yours or mine?’
‘Yours. There’ll be too much paperwork before mine can operate internally.’
Stranger and stranger, Stella thought. They want Ribicoff dead or alive. That much is obvious. Civil servants, some of whom operate mainly ‘externally’ rather than ‘internally’. FBI men who try to kill her, who do not object when another man tries to kill Ribicoff and threatens to kill her for kicking him. Forensics, so secret that the perfectly competent local police laboratories are shunned in favor of a team brought from Washington.
A patrolman came to the door, gun in hand. Greene showed him his card with one hand while the other held the phone to his ear. When he put the phone down he told the patrolman, ‘FBI. We have everything under control here. Thank you for coming.’
This, Stella thought, is my opportunity to shout out and escape this bunch of killers. Go on, tell the policeman they tried to kill you yesterday, and tonight shot at a poor hurt man. But she held her tongue. These people were not worried about a patrolman — they would probably kill him too. And he had seen her in their company. She would not disappear without a trace.
Stella, Stella, your imagination is running away with you.
But the plastic bag lying on the carpet on the floor was no mirage. She could clearly see the label. ‘The Coltrane Isolation Bag. Triple seal. Impermeable to liquids and gasses.’ When she was a medical student they called them ‘quarantine body bags’. She searched her mind, but concluded that, like most doctors who chose another specialty, she knew only enough about quarantine medicine to understand she should call in a specialist.
The policeman went. The other, younger FBI man who tried to kill her came through the door, his limbs leaden, white blotches of fatigue around his eyes and mouth. He glanced down at the folded body bag and the shattered door and said, ‘You didn’t get him.’
Greene shook his head. He bent to pick up the door and leaned it into the aperture. Then he turned savagely to Stella. ‘Listen, you’re in so much shit, you’re not even breathing. You will—’
Stella held up her hand, palm forward. ‘Mr. Greene, I’m not some drug addict you can flatten with bombast. I want to help Ribicoff, and you have the means to find him.’
‘Now you just—’
‘Both the Wyoming Senators are regular guests in my parents’ house,’ Stella continued mildly. ‘Ribicoff is a partner in the law firm whose senior partner was campaign manager for the President before last. I’m a senior executive of a very big firm whose owner considers all his employees his children. Sooner or later I shall speak to a lawyer and then, unless your little pieces of bureaucratic paperwork are in perfect order, you can kiss your pension goodbye. And we already know you haven’t done the paperwork, don’t we?’ she ended sweetly. She thought this harsh medicine brutal the first time she saw Ribicoff apply it to an obstreperous bureaucrat. No longer.
Greene started towards her, his fists clenching, but the patrician stepped between them and said, ‘Are you offering cooperation?’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Brock Samson. I’m with the National Security Agency.’ It was near enough to the truth in that he had once liaised with them. ‘You know what that is?’
‘Don’t patronize me, Mr. Samson.’ Easy Stella! But the bastard was lying to her. The NSA would have no need for forensic staff.
Samson continued as if she had not spoken. ‘Colonel James and Major Falco of the Army Chemical Corps.’
Oh yes, she thought, and they’re all athletes at the peak of fitness, wearing pistols in their armpits, ready to use them at a moment’s notice. And they threaten to kill a woman — and their colleagues raise not even an eyebrow, never mind an objection.
You most certainly don’t know many chemists. I do.
But she nodded politely to them, even managing a small apologetic smile for Colonel James, whose wrist she had mauled. Falco was the one who resented being kicked in his manhood.
‘And Mr. Greene and Mr. Frayn of the FBI you know already.’
The smile disappeared and she nodded. ‘Yes, I’ll help you all I can,’ she answered his question at last. ‘But I want Ribicoff in a hospital, not shot out of hand. All right?’
‘Good God, yes!’ Samson said fervently. ‘We’re not mad killers, you know.’
She almost believed him. But she knew, without any doubt, that they would kill her with Rib, once they found him. She did not have to explain her conviction or adduce evidence to support it, she just knew. A woman’s intuition, she thought. ‘He should be in hospital,’ she repeated.
‘All right, help us get him there.’ He waited for her to nod. ‘What did he say to you?’
‘Nothing. He’s in shock, probably suffering induced trauma-autism. He burbles and cries, so there’s nothing wrong with his vocal cords, but his co-ordination — or perhaps his memory — is shot to the extent that he cannot form coherent words.’
‘Is that a medical opinion?’ Colonel James asked.
‘I’m not a trauma specialist, but it seems pretty obvious, when taken with his visible injuries, and the fact that he suffered extreme exposure and probably hunger and thirst for several days, during which he received no medical attention.’
‘If his coordination is shot, quote unquote, how do you account for the fact that he killed a Doberman pinscher and a man, before escaping from a good number of other men hunting him?’
She was shocked to her core, and that made her aggressive. ‘Colonel, that’s a stupid question. I was close enough to you in that doorway to feel a lot of muscle. You know, as well as I do, that the conscious coordination of speaking is very different from the instinctive reaction of self-preservation. Now, I know why that bunch of thugs is after him — they think he was responsible for what happened at Dureville — but you haven’t yet answered my question. Why is Alexander Ribicoff so important to you?’
‘We’ll come to that shortly,’ Samson said smoothly. ‘Where did you send him?’
It was a trick question. Stella merely looked at him and kept looking at him. She sensed Falco move impatiently towards her, but Samson held up his hand.
‘Dr. Christopher, if we have to, we’ll beat the answers out of you. Have you ever been violated by a hot curling iron?’
Stella half rose in her chair before he pushed her back, his hand flat between her breasts.
‘That’s not a threat. Not yet. But I don’t want you to misunderstand the importance and urgency of finding Ribicoff.’
As if through the eyes of another person, Stella saw Frayn blanch and swallow back rising bile generated by Samson’s threat. None of the others batted an eyelid. They do not gloat openly, she thought, but they’re no better than the private-enterprise thugs from Dureville.
‘Where did you send him?!’ A whiplash.
Stella jumped and looked up at him meekly. ‘That’s what I was trying to explain to Colonel James. Ribicoff is in no state to comprehend instructions. He doesn’t connect, do you understand?’
Before a professional opinion delivered with force and passion, they backed off a little.
Immediately she pressed her advantage. ‘Why don’t you get a psychologist to explain the details to you? I’m a biochemist, and all I remember about abnormal psychology is bits and pieces of an introductory course. Proper specialists could perhaps tell you more, even if they didn’t see him and talk to him like I did.’ The poisoned pill, she thought. She did not want to be pushed out. As long as she was the source of their knowledge about Ribicoff’s state of health and mind, she would be able to keep track of these killers. The more people in the know, the weaker their conspiracy, whatever it was.
Assassins, she suddenly thought. It was the word she had been looking for. She wondered vaguely whether the United States actually employed such people, then put the thought from her. She could see them in front of her with her own eyes, and they had already threatened her with revolting tortures.
‘But you shouted at him to run and hide,’ said Greene, seating himself on the edge of the writing desk. She hoped the spindly legs would break and impale him. Vlad the Escritoire, ruler of Transylvania.
‘What the hell are you giggling at?’ Greene demanded angrily.
‘At your inability to separate conscious action from instinctive reaction.’ Greene started towards her again, but she held up her hand and said flatly and quickly, ‘I pushed Ribicoff out onto the fire escape. He struggled to get back in. He probably never even heard me tell him to run and hide.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ Frayn demanded. He went to see two of the stockbroker’s messengers in hospital; they described the hobo as incredibly fast.
Stella pretended to think for a moment, though she already knew her answer. ‘I can’t prove it, of course.’
‘Of course you can’t,’ Greene snorted.
‘Much of medical diagnosis is instinct,’ Stella said mildly. ‘There is something else though. A professional thug like you wouldn’t understand—’
Colonel James stepped from the wall and closed his good hand around Greene’s upper arm. ‘Let her speak, Kevin! Don’t be so thin-skinned!’
‘—but Ribicoff was a gentleman. To be precise, he was chivalrous, though I shouldn’t expect you to know the word.’
‘I do. We’re not. Stop baiting him,’ Samson snapped. ‘So, if he was in command of his senses, you contend Ribicoff would never have left you to the tender mercies of a bunch of uninvited male guests?’
Stella nodded. ‘Exactly.’
‘Hardly chivalrous to stick a pair of scissors through someone’s shoulder and into the carpet,’ Greene said.
‘Ribicoff didn’t do that. I did,’ Stella said. ‘And why aren’t you out arresting them?’
Greene ignored this. He sank into a chair. ‘Let’s take it from the beginning, Dr. Christopher,’ he said, and she knew this was the cultivated FBI agent she now saw, not the raw man exposed by fear.
‘Look,’ she appealed to Samson, ‘just tell me why you want Ribicoff so much. Then I can tell you anything I know that’s relevant — up front, saving the padding for later.’
‘No,’ Greene said, ‘that’s not proper procedure.’
‘Anyway, we have time,’ James added. ‘He has to come back here.’
‘Not with a whole convention of proven enemies camping out in my living room,’ Stella said.
They ignored that, from which she now concluded they carried a time schedule in their minds. Perhaps they thought Rib would not return for several hours.
Samson nodded at Greene. Without waiting for him to repeat his question, Stella said, ‘I came home from dinner with friends. I found my apartment had been searched.’ From the way their eyes flicked at Greene she knew they had expected him to make an undetectable search. ‘Next time, try not to crumple my underwear. I had to chuck it all back in the laundry.’
‘Then what?’ Greene said tightly.
‘Then Ribicoff came from behind the curtain and I screamed and screamed because I didn’t recognize him and—’
‘You didn’t recognize the man you live with?’ Falco asked.
‘You haven’t been close enough to him to—?’
‘No,’ James cut in. ‘We’ve seen him only from a distance. He’s in a bad state then?’
‘Very. You don’t have to believe me. Mr. Greene saw him clearly in good light.’
‘For half a second while someone rammed his head into my stomach and another threw a pair of scissors at me,’ Greene said sourly, obviously convinced that she was out to persuade his colleagues that he was an incompetent. ‘She’s right. He looked bad. Also, I could smell him. Not just dirt but the rot of pus in serious injury.’
There was a brief silence, then Stella said, ‘He was burned. He lost a lot of weight. He has broken bones and a variety of lacerations. I’ve already mentioned exposure and lack of proper nutrition—’
‘Of which thirst would be the worst,’ James said.
‘Right.’ Fighting soldiers would know that, but not administrators from the Chemical Corps.
‘Then what did you do?’ Greene tried to put the interrogation back on the rails.
‘I tried to put him on the bed but he wanted to show me something and pulled me along to—’
‘Pulled you along? I thought you said he was weak.’
‘I didn’t,’ Stella said shortly. ‘But, from appearances, he should have been. In any event, he was stronger than I expected. But he’s also seventy-five pounds heavier than me, and I wasn’t resisting.’ She glanced at James and Falco, whom she had resisted. ‘He showed me the female Gillian’s Redhair he had put in the zoo.’
‘How do you account for him catching the mole after what happened to him at Camp Zaharoff?’ Samson asked.
So they had been on Ribicoff’s trail from almost Second One. And Samson had just confirmed their interest was connected with the events at Camp Zaharoff. ‘That’s easy, Mr. Samson. It was the last thing in his mind before... It would easily become a fixation afterwards. That much I don’t think your expert psychologists will disagree with.’ But she no longer believed they would call in professional psychologists. Motivational experts deal with the living.
‘Then,’ Stella said without prompting, ‘he danced around like a drunk—’
‘Extreme fatigue?’ Greene suggested.
‘He fell over a chair, uh, that one you’re sitting on, Mr. Samson.’
‘It was on its side when we came in,’ Falco said.
‘Jablonsky the janitor must have righted it,’ Stella said. ‘He’s a compulsive tidier. See, he’s put it down at right angles to the wall.’ She had no intention of telling them the reason Ribicoff danced around until he fell over a chair — the message on the answering machine. That would give the lie to her statement that Ribicoff failed to understand her instruction to run and hide.
‘I finally managed to haul him into the bedroom. I was trying to lift his legs onto the bed, before calling an ambulance, when Chuck Sanka and Captain Kee and that other man arrived and attacked us. Then you arrived and the rest of the story you know.’
‘Captain Kee?’ Falco demanded.
‘He is one of the men who, with Colonel Tolk, started the trouble. He shot Rib’s first Gillian’s Redhair. Rib broke his jaw and he was in the hospital when Camp Zaharoff went up. But that’s not why you want Rib, is it?’
They ignored the question. Greene said, ‘Ribicoff broke his jaw again tonight.’ He moved his fore-arm in a wickedly sharp curve to demonstrate. ‘Okay, again, from the beginning.’
Stella went over and over the facts with them. They seemed tireless while she wilted. But she kept responding, hoping to discover something else of use to Ribicoff from the slant of the questions. If anyone told her as recently as last week that, within days, she would be refusing her help to her government, and in fact be determinedly misleading its officers, she would have laughed in their faces. But Dureville and Camp Zaharoff had been an education, reinforced by bereavement and attempts to kill her. Events opened her eyes and forced her to grow up. During the night she discovered things about Ribicoff she had never known she knew, but still the conviction persisted that these men knew much more about Ribicoff than she. At one stage Falco and Frayn went out for an hour and a half and she guessed they were manning an ambush at Ribicoff’s community law office; when they returned they merely shook their heads at the others. At four in the morning the forensic team from Washington arrived. Stella took the opportunity to rise to her feet.
‘I’m showering and changing first,’ she said. They would not torture her in front of the help. ‘Who will pay for the damage these people cause?’
Greene flushed and Samson said, ‘The government will reimburse you in full, Dr. Christopher.’
‘Or we can have a warrant in thirty minutes,’ Greene snapped.
Samson asked, ‘Whose blood is that on your blouse?’
Ribicoff’s! ‘I don’t know. Why?’
‘We want the blouse for analysis. All the clothes you wore, understand?’
‘The blouse cost a hundred and thirty-five dollars, the suit—’
‘Add all that, including underclothes, shoes and jewelry to the itemized bill,’ Samson said impatiently. He wore purple rings under his eyes. Outside, the night was lightening over the edge of the sea where the horizon would break from the ocean in no more than half an hour.
But despite the hammering fear for Ribicoff inside her, Stella felt fresh as a daisy in the morning dew. Ribicoff needed her help, and she had not failed him.
As she walked out of the room she heard Greene say, ‘That rich bitch! Worrying about a few dollars to clean carpets and a hundred bucks for a blouse!’
And Colonel James replying, ‘That’s how the rich become rich, caring for their property.’
She locked her bedroom door on the inside.
From her bedside table she took two small square envelopes with numbers and dates stamped on them. Their proper purpose was to enclose her donation to the collection plate in church, but they would do very well for what she intended. She took clean clothes into the bathroom with her and locked that door behind her too.
She shrugged out of her blouse, took the fingernail clippings from the pocket, and popped them into one of the little envelopes. She propped the envelope up on the glass shelf while she held the blouse upside down and shook it to be certain none of the clippings remained in the pocket.
Next she looked around for Rib’s razor, but that had been left behind at their camp... He used a cutthroat, so there were no spare blades. But in the cupboard under the sink was a leather presentation case with gold trim, and inside was a gold handled straight razor, presented to Rib by the running back of the Jets. Ribicoff said this razor was more for show than shaving because it would not hold an edge. She took it out and cut a piece of toilet tissue with it. It seemed sharp enough to her, and stropping it on the leather hanging beside the cupboard would make a loud slapping sound. She turned the blouse inside out and closely inspected the seam between the cuff and the sleeve. Then she cut three of the small stitches there. She pulled the turned edge out with a pair of tweezers and repeated the process at the shoulder. Next she used the tweezers to pull eight strands of silk from the sleeve. She carefully inspected the strands. Each one was stained by Ribicoff’s blood. They went into the other envelope.
She had long since worked it out: Since Ribicoff was still alive, they were calling in forensic scientists not to tell them how he had died, but how and when he would die. She had access to better laboratories than any forensic specialist could dream of; more, she was in the business not of forecasting how or when people would die, but of trying to cure them. This bunch of assassins were not interested in curing Ribicoff, they merely wanted to know how soon he would die.
She inspected the blouse carefully. The removal of the threads was not obvious at first glance. As a student, she attended a short introduction to the medical aspects of forensics. She guessed the materials experts would be as thorough as the medical people, in which case they would know sooner or later that she took a few strands. Unless she could restitch the seams... She inspected the remaining stitching. It was done by hand but the stitches were of almost machine-like regularity; the work of a master needlewoman who spent her life at it. Stella was proud of the little needlework she did, but knew she could not match such craftsmanship for even six stitches. She turned the seams back so that her interference would not show, and turned the blouse back inside-in. Perhaps they would be in such a hurry that they merely cut out the bloody patch and confined their attention to that. She dropped the blouse on the floor and the rest of her clothes on it.
She showered, shampooed and dried her hair and then dressed, ignoring the impatient knocking on the bedroom door. She studied her face in the mirror. Some of the bruises now showed yellow edges, turning her face varicolored. It would be impossible to hide the bruises with powder, but they conferred the advantage that no one could see she had not slept all night.
She slipped the two precious envelopes inside her bra and went into the bedroom. She stood just behind the door, composing herself for what she must do next. Through it she heard Samson say, ‘The FBI file on Dr. Christopher isn’t worth shit.’ Not so patrician at all, Stella thought. ‘It was compiled for a different purpose,’ Greene responded sullenly. ‘It’s useless for any purpose whatsoever if it doesn’t show the backbone of steel with which she’s been shafting you all night,’ a voice she thought to be Falco’s said without any particular emphasis. Stella opened the door.
They waited in the passage. Greene, relieved to have something else to do, pushed rudely past her and the technicians followed him into the room.
‘Where are your soiled clothes?’ Samson wanted to know.
‘On the bathroom floor. I’ll be off then.’
Falco put his arm across the passage in front of her.
‘I thought you were smarter than Greene,’ Stella said.
‘I am,’ Falco said, ‘but the forensic boys will want your watch as well.’
She removed it and gave it to him. To Samson she said, ‘It is a gift with sentimental value. I want it returned in good order.’
‘Let her keep it,’ Samson decided. Falco gave it back to her. ‘Where are you off to?’
‘My office. Unless I’m still under arrest, and you want me to start telling these longhaired and bearded technicians — liberals all — how you intend to shove a curling iron up my vagina.’
Samson shook his head. ‘Greene exceeded his authority, and I wanted to impress on you how desperate we are to find Ribicoff. He’s a time-bomb that will kill us all if we don’t find him first.’
Stella nodded and tried not to laugh. Any doctor could tell Samson that age is a time-bomb waiting to kill us all. In certain parts of the world, the same can be said of the commonest virus, influenza. Then she remembered how strange Ribicoff’s broken hand looked, how his fingernails transmitted infrared light, above all how his fingernails grew in just three days — and she experienced no difficulty in looking grave. Fingernails are dead tissue being sloughed off by the body. What happens to a body that sloughs off its tissue too fast?
‘Where will you wait for him?’ Samson asked.
‘At my office,’ she replied promptly, knowing that hesitation would be fatal.
‘He has been hunted. There are three places he used to go regularly: this apartment, his law office, and the street front he kept for his community law days. I think that once he has found this apartment unsafe, he will instinctively avoid the other two places because he will associate them with you waiting for him. But he wants to reach me. Otherwise, knowing that you were chasing him, why risk coming to Boston at all? That leaves my office.’
‘Uh-huh. What about friends?’
‘You know all about them too, don’t you? Anyway, that’s much too subtle for the state he’s in. The alternative is for him to head out of Boston and lie low somewhere until you give up waiting.’
‘Don’t even mention that possibility,’ James said. There must have been a medical auxiliary, or even a doctor, with the forensic squad that came from Washington, because his wrist was neatly bandaged.
‘You don’t mind if Major Falco looks in your bag before you go?’
‘No, of course not. If he promises not to blush at my girlish things.’
‘Like a pregnant killer shark is girlish,’ Falco said rudely.
‘First time in his life a girl ever said no, never mind kicked him in the goolies,’ Colonel James said, grinning at her. The smile did not reach his eyes. ‘Raise your arms.’
‘Why not?’ Samson asked.
‘You can search my bag because it is too much trouble to argue, but if you want to search my body, bring a policewoman to do it. I’ve had it up to here being manhandled by uncouth and clumsy thugs.’
‘Let it ride,’ Samson told James.
James’ grin did not waver, and he looked in no way abashed, Stella noticed.
‘What will you do at your office — just wait?’ Samson asked.
‘No. We keep an ambulance on the premises in case of emergencies in the lab. It’s part of the union agreement. I’ll have it parked in a prominent position at the front of the building as a signal that we want to care for him. Please, Mr. Samson, keep your people out of sight. Once I have him in the hospital, you can question him all you like.’
She knew they had no intention of asking Rib questions.
She also knew that if Ribicoff understood her instructions, he would not come to her office. But she could not be certain, nothing could be certain with a man so massively traumatized. But if he came, she would not try to drive the ambulance to a hospital through Samson’s assassins. She would instead rush him straight into the never-used Meyersco isolation unit that was also part of the union-agreement. It dated from a time when contagious viruses were bred there, work long since moved to Arizona. She told her tormentors none of this, instead looking anxiously at her watch. ‘Dawn would be a good time to be there, waiting,’ she said.
Samson nodded at Frayn. ‘Stay with her but stay out of sight. You too, Yup. All right, Dr. Christopher, we’ll try it your way.’
She wanted to say, You haven’t any alternative unless you want to ask the Police Commissioner to comb every street in downtown Boston, but confined herself to, ‘Thank you. You won’t regret it.’