33

By the time Winston Shreve stepped through the old doorway, I had dragged myself back into the farthest corner of the deteriorated laboratory-away from the remains of Charlotte Voight, away from the rats, and away from the man who had kidnapped me.

He was dressed for the occasion-with a ski jacket, jeans, and heavy boots-and now I remembered I had seen him at the college, in Sylvia Foote’s office during the afternoon, when he had worn a blazer and slacks. I still had no memory of how I had left the administration building and what had happened.

I shuddered when he spotted me in the dark recess into which I had crawled, but I had been shivering with cold for hours.

Shreve’s tread crunched on the packed snow as he walked toward me, stopping to pick up the blanket that had fallen off my body as I’d moved myself around the room. He kneeled in front of me and replaced it around my shoulders.

“I’m not a killer. That’s the first thing you’ve got to understand.”

My eyes must have expressed my terror. He spoke to me again.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Alex. I’ve brought you here because I need your help tonight. I’m not a killer.”

It was difficult to believe him with Charlotte’s body between me and the front door.

“You’ve got something I need, I think, and we’re going to have to trust each other for a while.” He reached behind me and removed the binding from around my wrists. I could see that it was a man’s necktie.

“I’m going to remove the gag from your mouth, too. Maybe that will help convince you that I’m not going to do anything extreme.” He undid the knot in the handkerchief and then used it to wipe some of the moisture off my forehead and cheeks. I noted that his tools had been those of an amateur-spare pieces of clothing-rather than ropes and duct tape, and tried to draw hope from that fact.

I moved my jaw around, opening and closing my mouth. It was sore and stiff from the restraint. I was unconvinced by his removing the gag. Now that I knew my whereabouts, I assumed that there was not a living soul within a mile of us. Water surrounded us on three sides, and there was a wasteland of debris to the north that was gated off from the population of Roosevelt Island by metal fencing and razor wire. Even without the bluster of the fierce wind, there was no one to hear me scream.

I found my voice. “Is that Charlotte Voight?

“The anthropologist was standing in front of me, and he turned to look at the cabinet of steel morgue trays before he answered. “Yes. But I didn’t kill her.” He repeated his denial, slowly but firmly, as though it made a difference if I believed him.

“I was infatuated with Charlotte. There was nothing I would ever have done to hurt her.”

I thought back to the students we had interviewed and their rumors about affairs between faculty members and undergraduates. It should have been obvious to me that Winston Shreve would be a likely offender. Hadn’t he told us when we questioned him that his ex-wife, Giselle, had been one of his students when he taught in Paris? How typical to have repeated the pattern. H was probably a classic case of arrested development, fixated on twenty-year-old students and consummating that original love affair over and over again.

“This is one way you can help me, Alex,” he said, squatting again and lifting the blanket off my shoulders to cover my head as well. “As a prosecutor, I mean. I can explain this to you and then you can tell them that I am innocent.”

If he was waiting for a response, he got none. “Charlotte and I had been having a relationship for month Oh, there were boys now and then whom she got involved with but she was as enamored of me, I think, as I was of her. She was nothing at all like most of the kids. She thought like a woman, not a child.”

How many times had he used that bullshit line on some unsuspecting adolescent?

“I brought her over to the island to get her involved in the project. She didn’t have much interest in the work here, but she loved the place itself. Not the new part,” he said, waving his arm in the direction of the residential half of the island. “She liked mysteries about the past, about the history. And she loved walking through the ruins.”

Of course Charlotte Voight would have liked it here. She w an outcast herself, isolated from whatever home and family she had come to New York to escape, and alienated from many of t kids her age at the college. This, the centuries-old island of outcasts, had worked its spell on her, too.

“During last winter, there were many nights Charlotte had come to my apartment. It’s easy to be disapproving, but I was a hell of a lot safer company than the hoodlums who were trying to keep her doped up all the time. But then, one night last April, she wanted to come here, to the island.

“It was a beautiful spring evening. She thought it would be romantic to make love out in the open, looking back at the city.”

“That sounds more like your idea.” It sounded exactly like what Shreve had told Mike and me he had done when Lola Dakota first introduced him to Roosevelt Island. “A romantic evening on a blanket in front of the ruins, watching the tall ships and the fireworks, drinking wine, looking back over at River House, where your father grew up.”

Why could I remember last week’s interviews so well and have no idea about what had hit me today?

“It hardly matters whose idea it was at this point, does it? The unfortunate part is that I couldn’t get Charlotte to give up the drugs, no matter how hard I tried. She’d been using them back home in South America since she was thirteen, experimenting with anything that anyone offered to her. So on her way to meet me, she stopped to score some pills. But I didn’t know it at the time, you’ve got to understand that.”

“We spoke with her friends. She never got to Julian’s. Is that what you mean, pills from what they called the ‘lab’?”

Shreve sat in the window frame to answer me. “When Charlotte said she was going to the lab, this is what she meant.”

How stupid of me. Strecker Memorial Laboratory. The pathology lab.

“Ghoulish, you’ll say. But that was Charlotte’s humor. She wanted to get high and wander around the lab and the old hospital. See what ghosts she could conjure. These things didn’t scare or repulse her as they do most young people. She thought it was almost mystical, like a connection to another generation, another period of time.”

“And that night?”

“We drove over here together. I’ve got a master key, of course to get inside the gates. I’d brought a couple of bottles of wine Charlotte got to explore all the hideaways she’d wanted to see and we lay on the blanket for hours, looking at the constellation and talking about her life. But she became agitated, the more she drank. Got up and started climbing around the old buildings, was afraid she was going to fall and hurt herself. I tried to slow her down, but she was euphoric, acting like she was hallucinating

“That’s when I realized she must have been taking pills, in addition to the alcohol.”

“Did you ask her what?”

“Of course I did. She was behaving so irrationally that it was obviously something that had reacted badly with the alcohol, Ecstasy, she told me. Lots of Ecstasy.”

Lessen her inhibitions. Enhance her sexual experience. Create a false euphoria. Turn an evening at the lab with Winston Shreve into a psychedelic delight.

I asked my question softly. “What happened to her?”

“A seizure of some sort. First she had a panic attack. I tried to grab her and convince her to get in the car so I could take her to doctor. But she screamed at me and ran farther away. I chase after her, but she was breathless and agitated. I wasn’t aware, at first, that it was some kind of overdose, but that must have been what happened. She was flailing wildly, twitching and shaking uncontrollably. And then she just collapsed in my arms.”

“Didn’t you try to get her to a hospital?”

“Charlotte was dead. What good would that have done? She had a massive paroxysm.”

I’d seen cases like that related to my work. Kids who overdose with what they considered a harmless drug at nightclubs and raveparties. Dead before the ambulance arrived. “I know that canhappen, Mr. Shreve. Why didn’t you call the police? Get help?”

“At the time, I didn’t understand why she died. Now I’ve read about the drugs and realize they can be deadly, but I had no idea of that the night Charlotte OD’ed. I, I guess I just panicked. I saw my entire career wiped out. I sat on the far side of that wall,” he said, and pointed to the entryway, “holding Charlotte’s body in my arms, and I knew that everything I had worked for in my professional life had been destroyed.”

“So you just left her here?” I looked around at the decaying rubble of the young girl’s tomb.

Shreve was unhappy to be challenged. “I never planned to do that. I needed the night to think. I needed to figure out how I could walk into a medical center on a spring morning with this beautiful child in my arms and tell them that a terrible accident had occurred. I needed to find a way to explain her death to Sylvia Foote and the people at the college who believed in me.”

All he was concerned with was his own predicament.

“This was, after all, a morgue,” he went on. “I put my blanket around Charlotte, and I carried her inside here and put her down for the night.” I filled in the blanks: on a rust-covered metal morgue tray in a rat-infested skeleton of a building, for the next eight months.

“And you never came back?”

“I thought I’d have a plan by the next morning, that I’d drive back over and-. And I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t bring myself to come back over here to see her. I knew that occasionally there would be workmen in this area, and I expected one of them to find the body long before now.

“In fact, I wanted them to find the body. But this part of the island spooks everyone. I never expected it would be this long before she could be taken out of here. If they autopsied Charlotte, everyone would know she wasn’t murdered. Don’t you think they can still tell that, I mean about the toxicology and how she died? There have been other cases like this in the city, haven’t there?”

“Other deaths like that, yes.” Other bodies left to rot by a brilliant self-centered anthropology professor? I doubt it.

“This building is actually designated to be converted into equipment station for the new subway line. It will be renovated soon. Then they can give Charlotte a proper burial.”

Had he lost his mind completely, that he could walk away from here and leave the girl behind another time?

I was certain, now, that I had left the administration building in the company of Sylvia Foote when this afternoon’s meeting broke up. I forced myself to look in the direction of Charlotte body, to see whether any of the other trays were occupied, snow fell steadily and the shadows made it impossible for me to see.

“Sylvia Foote? Is she here, too, Mr. Shreve?” I thought of all my battles with her over the years and all the times I had wished her misery. “Is she dead?”

He pushed himself up from his windowsill seat and brushed his hands together to clean off his gloves. “Not at all, Alex. Sylvia’s my alibi for this evening. I’ve spent hours with her a hospital, since late this afternoon. Took her there myself, into the emergency room. Stayed with her while they exam her and pumped her stomach. I was at Sylvia’s side the whole time. Treated her with kid gloves until she was out of the woods and the resident cleared her to be admitted for the night, just to be safe.

“Some dreadful attack of food poisoning. Must have been something she drank.”

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