Bex, if it was Bex, turned and ran. It sure looked like Bex, with the messy long hair and the studded motorcycle jacket glittering in the drizzle. I staggered backward but Jolonda had closed the door. Forcefully.
Chase asked, “Do you know that guy?”
“I hope not.” It’s like Bex was a demon I kept summoning up. And it had happened so fast I wanted to be wrong about it. “My ex lives miles away but lately he’s been emailing me pictures of the campus. So I knew he must be loitering around someplace. I keep telling him to go.” I heard Koo’s whine coming into my voice, but it was impossible not to imagine a photo of me and Chase coming out of the student health center plastered all over everybody’s Facebook pages.
“Well, he’s scared of you anyway,” said Chase. “Or he has a devil after him.”
I’m voting for the devil. Let’s talk about other people’s embarrassments. “So, weird about Howk,” I suggested awkwardly. “Disappearing. What happened to her? Where did she go? Isn’t it super creepy that she has our files?”
“Was she the body at the bottom of the stairs?”
“Definitely not. That was some old lady.” Once you persuaded me to open my eyes…
“Remember their sex tape?” Chase suggested, almost hopefully, I thought. “Maybe it’s some kind of sextortion.“
Yeah, but who’s sextorting who?
I joked, “Maybe she and Corso went to Viagra Falls.”
“Well, if you remember everything, you remember my passion for evidence,” said Chase. “Can’t bring the big man down without it.” He consulted his Smartphone. “Let’s ask Howk.” Looking up her address. No lunch for Jazz.
“Can’t remember the address of your old girlfriend?” I teased. Emphasis on old.
“The thing I love about you, Jazz, is that you know when I’m lying,” said Chase. That shut me up. But once you’ve raced through universes together, it does get you closer. So fast I had to ask myself, was this where I wanted to be? Wasn’t this man still a stranger?
Punch Brook Apartments had probably been a chic singles place to live – once. Now the cedar shingles were stained or missing, revealing health-problem asphalt horror; the too-small swimming pool was grimy with green gunk and the patched cement entryways wore the look of a prison yard.
Nomenclature was no help, either. Poor Miss Howk was in “Building F.” Who wouldn’t escape that grading system just as fast as she could?
At least her apartment was on the second floor, which meant that, instead of a cement dog urinal, she had a balcony. She also had a fake door, unlike the one guarding her office. I could hear it echoing hollowly as we knocked.
“Look at this,” said Chase, stepping aside to move his shadow.
Footprints on the door. Someone had tried kicking it in. Fake door, I’m telling you. They had certainly managed to dent it. Poor Miss Howk. That person was angry, whoever he was. Big footprint. I shivered for her.
“Maybe she just forgot her key and happened to be wearing Doc Martens,” Chase teased.
“You should go to law school. A mind like yours is wasted on psychology. Size twelve?”
“She looked very riot girl to me. And I’d like to go to law school someday… If I get out of this alive.”
“We will,” I insisted. Solidarity. “Death is not an option.”Chase gave the door a fingertip push. The distorted latch could no longer catch, and the door swung obediently open.
“See?” said Chase. “No breaking in this time either.”
My flood of déjà vu felt like a panic attack. We were no longer sleep- soaring. We were flat-footed mouth-breathers trapped in time and place; inhaling the stink of death. A miasma of violence reached out to suck me in.
“This needs gloves,” said Chase, but he was talking to himself. It was cold. I was already wearing gloves.
“Omigod,” I choked, braced in the doorway, refusing to move. “She’s dead. We’re going to find a body.”
“You’ve got quite the little psychic thing going there, haven’t you?” asked Chase, “It was a good guess about law school. Are you just trying to scare me?”
But I felt the reverse of psychic, whatever that is. Clueless. If I was psychic I would have known enough to stay away. Just Say No to everything; Bex, Fluffernutter, Corso. A real psychic would have stayed in bed. “He killed her,” I whined. “I can’t go in.”
But Chase could. He patted my shoulder and left me there, counting the seconds. His face, when it stuck it out the broken door, looked relieved.
“She’s not here,” he said. “This time you were wrong.”
I uncovered my eyes. “Not even pieces of her?”
“Not a spot of blood, not even a fingernail. On the other hand, there’s a hell of story of some kind. I think you’d want to see.”
I stepped inside. To say the apartment was in “disarray” would be putting it mildly. A migraine of epic proportions threatened to boil across my vision. I was majorly allergic to something dug up here. Insulation? Or brutality?
Every chair was upturned, every piece of upholstery slashed. A swinging metal cage-chair had been ripped right out of the ceiling. This had given the perpetrator the idea to further rip out ceiling tiles and scatter them around wholesale. We were getting pink insulation dust all over us just by standing there. A broken computer monitor and keyboard were spewed across the floor; hard drive wrenched away and missing. Every plant had been brought in from the tiny balcony and potting soil strewn around.
The kitchenette was a mass of broken glassware. Maybe Howk had defended herself by crouching behind the counter lobbing wineglasses like grenades.
“Look for a tall man covered in flour, coffee, potting soil and pink insulation dust,” said Chase. “See? He didn’t need to stand on anything to touch the ceiling.” He picked up an antique-looking canister marked “Flour.” Had Miss Howk planned to bake? Atavistic urges kicking in? One again I felt reality loosen.
“Someone must have seen him,” I offered faintly.“Maybe it was the middle of the night,” Chase suggested.
“But it must have made a racket.”
Chase shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe these neighbors were used to noises coming from this apartment. Maybe they make plenty of noise themselves. Maybe they did call the police and the police dropped by and things were quiet. On the other hand, maybe everyone just turned up the TV. See? He must have found what he was looking for.”
I thought Chase had some psychic abilities of his own. “How do you know that?”
“Because all the action’s out here.” He stepped inside the other room. “The bedroom hasn’t been touched. The bed is even made.” A beat before he hissed a final verdict, “Hospital corners.”
Well, it wasn’t sex the invader wanted.
“The hard drive,” I suggested, looking at the disemboweled computer.
He objected. “Everyone knows where to find a hard drive.” Something small enough to be in the soil of a potted plant.
“Flash drive? For backup?” All of us have to back things up. Forgetting that simple step invites centuries of bad karma. Especially if what you’ve got is irreplaceable… Blizzards have been known to occur…even in cloud computing.
Chase, always braved for expected opposition, caved for my idea. “It’s as good a theory as any.”
Poor Miss Howk! She liked stirring up strong feelings…too much. Was sextortion ever worth it? Somebody hated her. Somebody powerful. And no one else cared.
At the same moment we said to each other, “Corso poisoning.”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I begged Chase. “We’re stepping all over a crime scene.”
“You sure?” asked Chase. “Think about it. There’s no blood, no body. Just a broken door and some really, really bad housekeeping, which was legal last time I checked. Maybe she was redecorating. Maybe she’s moving out and she had a dispute with the management.”
“You know it wasn’t that.” My migraine cloud expanded, threatened to engulf my reasoning powers. “Well it’s going to be a crime scene if my head explodes.” A horrible thought occurred to me. “Did you look under the bed?”
He grinned. “Flip you for it.”I fled. He caught up with me outside. He sounded contrite. “Only
joking. Of course I looked under the bed. She’s not there.”
“I’m sure she’s dead,” I said with finality. “I can feel it.”
“Maybe she came home, saw the mess and took off running.” He shuddered. “I would. She should change her name while she’s at it.”
“I like that idea,” I said, rubbing my forehead. But didn’t having all those distinctive tattoos and piercings make it harder to disappear? I wanted to imagine Miss Howk free somewhere, waitressing in a diner, selling tickets at a rodeo, hawking Star Maps on the Sunset Strip. But she’d always look just like herself… How I wished there was a pill you could take to rid yourself of certain thoughts and memories, the way you rid yourself of headache. Maybe memories themselves cause inflammation of the brain…
The best thing would be something like a computer’s “undo” key, which is my favorite thing on it, if you care at all for my opinion. I press undo, undo, undo…Go back just as far as you needed to; six years, five years…just start over. Deleting is so much easier than creating, don’t you think? Delete. Delete, delete. But my two voices intervened. Arguing. Don’t want to lose any of the stuff that makes you you.
At the foot of the outside stairs we stomped and wiped dirt and dust off our feet and off each other’s clothes. Hadn’t seen a soul. I’m telling you this place was creepily deserted.
“You know something else interesting,” said Chase. “He took the answering machine but he didn’t unplug the landline. What does that tell you?”
It told me that the person who broke into this apartment was cool headed enough to leave behind a situation where no one calling in could tell anything was amiss. In other words, someone familiar enough with university procedures to know the health center was obliged to phone but not visit.
“Howk seemed a bit of a rough chick,” I suggested. Was my “reptile brain” playing devil’s advocate, or was hanging around with Chase a contagion situation? “She might know some guys more dangerous than Corso.”
Chase shook his head. “No one’s more dangerous than Corso.”
“A kick boxer could have kicked in that door.” Mentally picturing Corso in full-on karate ghee sparked an idea. A suit. “Follow me.” I walked straight to the rusty dumpsters obstructing the narrow alley between the buildings. I knew they’d be in the only logical place — and they were. I saw a couple of weak floodlights — one burned out — but no visible security cameras.
I closed my eyes imagining I was the guy who just left Howk’s apartment. What would I do? I’d pick that last one, the dumpster deep in shadow. “Bet you’ll find a pair of coveralls in there,” I said authoritatively. “You know, workmen’s onesies.”
“A jumpsuit,” said Chase. “I know what you mean. I keep one in the garage for working on the car.” He eyed me speculatively. “Still being psychic? Or was that deductive or inductive reasoning?”
“I don’t know the difference.”
“Deductive is going from the general to the specific. Induction is the other way around.”
So what do you call imagining yourself as a criminal? Aw, let him have it. “Maybe I was psychic then.”
“That’s good enough for me.”
He hoisted himself up, tossing around boxes and bags. He hauled up a sleeve of dark green cloth spattered with pink insulation dust and what looked to be potting soil.
“Should we call the police?”
He jumped down beside me, dusting his hands. “How do we keep them from jumping to the conclusion that we’re in this up to our eyeballs?”
That sent a chill up my spine. I had already complained about Bex so I found myself all-too-able to imagine a phalanx of unsympathetic cops. “What motive would we have?”
Chase shrugged his shoulders. “Same as Corso. She has the files, we have the secrets. Plus, cops see college students and they always think drugs. They’re willing to give faculty members a pass, but kids they’ll hassle. Believe me, I’ve tried rousing them to their higher functions. Since it can’t be done, I’m thinking we’re going to have to produce actual, incontrovertible evidence.”
Is there any such thing? And how did I get so cynical?
Chase shook his head like a dog throwing water. “I can’t really think uncaffeinated. Ready for that sandwich at Cuppa Joe’s?”