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Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 3


  Her eyes were wide still, but her breathing slowed.

  “So I meant it, when I asked if you’d like to see Tara.”

  * * *

  Tara was not surprised to see me but her eyes were wide when I walked up the stairs to the mezzanine of Krakatoa.

  She held up her phone. “Jade just texted that I would see you in a moment. She’s got your number and I don’t?”

  I shook my head. “She doesn’t have my number. Come on.”

  “Come on? What’s up? Where are we going?” She pulled her backpack closer and slid her notebook into it.

  There was no one else on the mezzanine. I let her stand and sling her backpack over one shoulder before I did it.

  Tara screamed when she appeared in Jade’s room, and collapsed, but I was ready and eased her to the floor, and then Jade was there, clinging, and they were both crying.

  I left the room the normal way and found the floor’s communal bathroom.

  I stared in the mirror. The expression on my face was bleak.

  I’d jumped into a different dorm room three weeks before.

  Joe and I had been seeing each other only on the weekends—so he could get into the college groove properly—but I’d wanted him bad that night and I figured he could make an exception.

  Apparently so did he, ’cause he wasn’t alone in his bed when I got there.

  When I returned to Jade’s dorm room, I tapped gently before pushing the door open.

  They were both sitting on the bed, side by side, no space between them. Both of them looked at me with large eyes.

  “All right?” I said.

  They looked at each other and involuntarily smiled, but when they looked back at me, their smiles faded.

  “And they all moved away from me on the Group W bench,” I said. “Don’t make me sing. You won’t like me when I sing.”

  Tara giggled and some of the tension went out of Jade’s posture.

  “Let’s go get something to eat. I hear Northampton has great restaurants.”

  They hesitated and I added, “Don’t make me hungry. You won’t like me when I’m hungry.”

  And they both laughed and they stood and it was all right.

  TWO

  Millie: Tell him to stay longer next time

  Assisted living.

  Until recently Millie’s mother, Samantha Harrison, had lived in a nice apartment but wore a med-alert necklace to call for help. A health aid checked on her mornings and afternoons and a cleaning staff came through daily. She used a walker to go down to a group dining hall where she gossiped with friends, or to the activities lounge where she’d tutor people in the finer details of standard Stayman contract-bridge bidding. She’d play, too, but as a Gold Life Master, she had very little local competition.

  Now she was in the attached nursing facility, bedridden.

  Millie paired the two in her head. She couldn’t help it.

  Assisted living and assisted dying.

  It was a death trap in other ways, too.

  At 4 P.M. Millie grabbed a taxi at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport and took it to the retirement community near Buffalo Park, on the west side of the city. Wearing a wig and dark glasses and carrying flowers, she checked in with the front desk. She gave a false name for herself and said she was visiting Agnes Merriwether.

  “You know the way, dear?” asked the receptionist.

  Millie nodded solemnly. She didn’t feel like smiling and she was pretty sure they were used to that here.

  Agnes was an early onset dementia patient whose failing cognitive abilities were supported by an all-too-healthy body. She barely recognized her own immediate family and the staff was quite accustomed to her not recognizing more remote family and friends.

  It was painful for Millie. There was less and less of an actual personality there, but Agnes still ate, keeping up a healthy weight, and she could move her limbs for the physical therapists. She would probably linger for years.

  Exactly the opposite of her mother.

  For cover, Millie spent fifteen minutes talking with Agnes, who responded with completely random nods and occasional shakes of the head and never took her eyes off the television. After a bit, Millie walked down the hall to the restroom then, on leaving it, walked into a different room down the hall.

  “How are you today, Ms. Harrison?” she asked, forcing a smile.

  The bed look oversized, but only because her mother was shrunken, with thin flesh draped over too-apparent bones and an incipient dowager’s hump from osteoporosis. She was wearing an oxygen cannula and there was a saline drip in her arm. Another tube ran from the sheets’ edge to a bag of yellow liquid on the end of the bed.

  Foley catheter.

  Her mother’s eyes widened for a moment and she lifted her head, but then settled back against the pillow. “I’m fine … dear.” Her voice was faint and Millie barely caught it.

  Millie moved closer, pulled up a chair, and took her mother’s hand. The return squeeze was pathetically weak. She searched her mother’s eyes and her mother winked.

  Millie wanted to gather her up in her arms and hold her, but Samantha was five days post-op from hip surgery. The first fall, two years before, had resulted in a hip replacement. The previous week’s injury could not be fixed in the same way.

  Her sister had filled her in: “Too much bone loss. They’ve put plates and screws and I don’t know what else in there, but they don’t think her pulmonary function is up to a full replacement. They said it won’t be long before she’ll need some kind of ventilator full time.” Besides the bone loss, her mother had had bouts of polymyositis, a muscular inflammatory disease that was slowly depleting her overall strength and her ability to breathe.

  The weak voice said, “How’s that daughter of yours?”

  Thanks, Mom. Way to combine my two most pressing concerns! “She’s okay. She’s got a new hobby.” Making me insane with worry. “She says hello.”

  Cent had sent her love but they always assumed the room was bugged and probably had video cameras, too, another reason Millie wasn’t too openly affectionate. Millie tried to make up for this with her eyes.

  “And the rest of your family?”

  Meaning Davy. “All good. Busy, busy, busy.”

  “I’d like to see them again,” her mom said. “Before—”

  An RN came in, holding a magazine and a pen. “Oh, excuse me, Sam. Didn’t know you had a visitor.” Her eyes scanned the drip bag, the oxygen settings, and glanced at the catheter bag. “I’ll come back.” She started to turn to leave but Millie’s mother stayed her with a twitch of her fingers.

  “This is Seeana,” she said to Millie.

  Seeana was a short black woman with her hair shaved close on the sides and straightened, spiked, and dyed blond on top. Seeana said, “I always come to Sam for help. We’ve got the rest of the puzzle but this clue doesn’t make sense!”

  Millie leaned back and raised her eyebrows and her mother flicked her fingers again.

  Seeana said, “Nine letters. ‘A line that goes to the North Pole.’”

  “Longitude,” said Millie.

  “Yeah, that’s what I thought, but all the horizontal words that run across it don’t work. It needs to start with a D and end with an A. I tried a dictionary and even Google, but I’m stumped.”

  Millie’s mother looked up, briefly, to the ceiling, then said softly. “Try ‘Dear Santa.’”

  Seeana shook her head, not in disagreement, but in wonder. “That’s it!”

  Millie laughed and then nearly burst into tears. All that razor-sharp intellect trapped inside brittle bones and wasting muscle.

  “Thanks, Sam. I knew I could count on you.”

  Millie’s mother twitched her hand again and Seeana left.

  “She seems nice,” said Millie. It sounded inane, but anything to avoid what her mother had been saying before Seeana stuck her head in.

  “She’s great—she should be supervisor. I get to hear about her love life.
She has a real fondness for guys that her mother hates.”

  Millie winced. “I suspect there are quite a few, then.”

  “The mean and median duration is about five weeks. You could chart it. She’s in a rough place. When she doesn’t have a boyfriend, her mother is all over her about that, too.”

  “Have you pointed this out to her?”

  “She pointed it out to me. She’s stuck, but self-aware. I’d really like to see her find someone worthy before I die.”

  They were back to it.

  Millie said, “Remember our offer?”

  “Yes.” Samantha sighed. “I probably should have taken you up on it back then.”

  Even before the first hip fracture Millie had asked Samantha to come live with them, but back then Samantha still had an active social life. While she still lived in the facility, it was dangerous for Davy, Millie, and Cent to visit her. It wasn’t that their enemies kept permanent employees in the retirement community—but they suspected electronic surveillance and Davy was convinced that some of the staff was on retainer to report all of Samantha’s visitors.

  Millie thought Davy paranoid, but she still followed most of his recommendations. She’d arrived by taxi because they might have installed a local gravimeter. Jumping opened a point between two different places and, for a tiny but measurable period, gravity readings from both sides of the jump registered if the jump was close enough.

  “It’s not too late,” Millie said. “You can still—”

  “Good afternoon,” a cheery voice said. A white-jacketed man walked into the room, a stethoscope hanging from his neck, a file folder in his left hand, his right hanging down on the far side of his body.

  Millie glanced at her mother’s face and saw her brow furrow. She doesn’t know him. She jerked her head back toward the man as he lifted the gun, pointing it not at Millie but at her mother.

  “Do anything and I’ll shoot her.”

  Millie held perfectly still.

  The man moved closer to the bed, the gun pointed at Samantha’s chest. He threw the file folder onto the bed and reached into his left jacket pocket and pulled a different gun, yellow plastic with a square black muzzle.

  A Taser.

  “I mean it. You do anything and she’s—”

  He was gone.

  Millie saw it, but then, she knew what to look for.

  Like lightning, like a single frame of film in a projected movie. She couldn’t even tell how Davy grabbed the “doctor.” Did he grab the neck, the jacket, hook his arms around from behind?

  Subliminal. Below the threshold of perception.

  She stepped to the doorway and peeked both ways down the hall, but no one was waiting there. She didn’t hear any sudden footsteps or distant commotion.

  Not yet.

  Samantha’s eyes were wide when Millie returned to her bedside, but she said dryly, “Tell him to stay longer next time.”

  “Are you all right, Mom?” She should have avoided saying “Mom” but she wanted to hear the word—hear it out loud.

  “I wasn’t worried about me if that’s what you mean.” Samantha’s face was oddly reflective. “Don’t trade the years of your life for my fifteen minutes! Think about Cent.”

  Millie winced. “Come spend some of your time with us. With your granddaughter.”

  Samantha looked up into Millie’s eyes, searching. “All right.” Then she sighed. “But next week, after they get the staples out. When they know I haven’t taken any infections.”

  Millie bent over and kissed her mother’s cheek, then stroked her hair. “Okay. I’ll prepare a space, and I’ll start interviewing medical staff. We’ll want a nurse and a couple of aids. A hospital bed. Do you want to stay on the catheter?”

  “I’d rather wear diapers, frankly, but I can use a bedpan, once I can move my hip a little.” She tilted her head. “Are you sure? It’s a stinky, smelly business.”

  Millie nodded. “Yes. I’m sure.”

  Samantha clucked her tongue and gestured. “Closer.” When Millie bent down, Samantha whispered, “You might give Seeana a try.”

  Millie raised her eyebrows. “Really?” She gestured toward file folder still lying on the bed.

  Samantha whispered, “They don’t pay her shit. Doubt if she’s on the payroll of them, or she wouldn’t still be living with her mother.”

  Millie straightened. In a normal voice she said, “Okay. We’ll see.”

  Now she could hear steps running in the hall.

  “How did Davy know to come then?”

  Millie smiled and leaned close. “They’re not the only ones who can install video cameras,” she whispered, then kissed her mother’s temple.

  And jumped.

  THREE

  Cent: He keeps saying that

  When I asked for directions, the department receptionist on the third floor of the engineering building gave me a room number and said, “That’s down in purgatory.”

  At my blank look she added, “The basement? With the graduate-assistant cubbies? Are you an engineering student?”

  “No, ma’am.” I didn’t add that I wasn’t a student at the university either.

  “Oh, sorry. Our kids all know what ‘purgatory’ means. Well, take the elevator all the way down and follow the hall around to zero five seven. He’s not going to be there much longer, you know.”

  “I thought his office hours were until six?”

  “They were, but he’s no longer a professor at this university. His contract was terminated, so if you were going to talk to him about getting into one of his seminars, you’re wasting your time.”

  I bobbed my head. “Thanks for the directions.”

  When I stepped off the elevator I saw immediately why they called it purgatory. There was an HVAC plant on this floor and some kind of machine shop, and they hadn’t spent much on sound insulation. It got a little quieter as I walked away from the elevator, going to merely annoying instead of painful.

  The fluorescent lights were the kind that made your skin look pasty and hurt your eyes. Despite the noise, most of the office doors were open, including 057, but the light coming out of Dr. Matoska’s office was different, far closer to natural sunlight, and I wondered if the room had an outside window.

  I stuck my head in. The room was a mess. The entrance was half blocked by a stack of broken-down cardboard boxes leaning against the doorjamb. Spools of wire or fiber spilled across the floor and stacks of books waited beside electronic devices and half-filled boxes. The desk was stacked with boxes, except for a corner with an open, half-filled bottle of scotch, two mismatched glasses, and a Marvin the Martian coffee mug.

  The fluorescent bulbs had been pulled out of the fixture and a bank of different colored LED lights, approximating real sunlight, dangled from jury-rigged wiring.

  But no sign of Cory Matoska, Ph.D.

  The next office was open, too, and a young woman sat before a computer monitor. I said, “Excuse me,” but she didn’t even twitch. I looked closer and saw she was wearing earbuds, the wires hidden in her long brown hair. I stuck my hand into her field of vision and waved.

  She turned to the door and pulled out one of the earbuds. “Yes?”

  I jerked my thumb back down the hall. “Seen Professor Matoska?”

  She nodded. “He was going to pack up his lab.”

  I raised my eyebrows expectantly.

  She said, “Oh. You don’t know where his lab is?”

  I nodded.

  “Keep going, turn the corner, and it’s on the left. Still had his name on it at lunch.”

  “Thanks.”

  She went back to her music and I moved on around the basement. As I turned the first corner, the sound of raised voices emerged from the general background roar of the HVAC plant’s ventilation fans.

  I reached a short cul-de-sac off the main hall in time to hear: “—prototype isn’t university property! Its funding was not tied to the school at all!”

  The man speaking had
his back to me. He wore jeans, a polo shirt, and had a small bald spot in blond hair shot with gray. Beyond him, a man in an expensive suit and a female and male police officers stood in front of a closed door labeled “Lab 16” and “Dr. Cory Matoska” below a small rectangular window with wire-reinforced glass.

  The man in the suit said, “That is yet to be determined. Our standard engineering-faculty agreement is pretty clear about intellectual property on work done here.”

  “And if I’d signed that awful piece of verbiage, you would be right, Hannum, but your predecessor agreed that it would not be appropriate, given my funding, and we deleted that entire section.”

  The female campus police officer frowned and shifted, turning so she could see Hannum—the man in the suit—as he responded to this.

  “I’ll be happy to review your contract with university legal, but if you think I’m going to let you cart off university property before I do that, you’re insane!”

  The man with the bald spot turned toward the police and pulled out his cell phone. He held it up and a flash went off.

  The male police office said, “What are you doing?”

  Dr. Matoska—it had to be Matoska—said “Dr. Hannum has been trying to get his hands on my research as long as I’ve been here. If you two help him, you’ll be named in the criminal charges.” He looked back at Hannum. “I have a complete video inventory of the lab.”

  I saw Hannum glance at the cell phone still in Dr. Matoska’s hand with a look of speculation.

  “The video’s in the cloud, Hannum.”

  Matoska stepped to the side and looked directly at the female officer. “Officer—he leaned forward and looked at the name badge pinned to her uniform. “Ah, Deputy Chief Mendez, are you going to let me into my lab or not?”

  Hannum said loudly, “It’s not his lab. Not anymore.”

  Matoska clenched his fists. “Are you going to give me access to my property, then?”

  Mendez said, “I hate to say it, but this looks like a job for the lawyers, Dr. Matoska.”

  “And will you also guarantee that this asshole won’t be looting my equipment?”

  “Are you seriously concerned about that?”