CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR. 1

MARKHAM GESTURED WITH THE HAND THAT HELD his drink, spilling a little on the Renfrews’ gray carpet. Absent-mindedly he dabbed at it with his foot, as if uncertain whether it was due to him, and went on talking to Cathy Wickham. “Those new equations of yours have some funny solutions. There’s the old probability wave for the causal loops, yes, but…” He kept on in a dreamy, thoughtful way, at the same time in the back of his mind hoping Jan would arrive soon. He had called her from the lab when Renfrew told him that this gathering was to be a sort of informal bon voyage party for him. Renfrew was pinning hopes of overcoming the noise problem on the Brookhaven equipment, and Markham’s dexterity at talking them out of it. “Pissing down out, isn’t it?” Renfrew remarked, peering out a window. It was. A brooding gloom had followed the sudden, thundering rain. Peterson, driving in from Cambridge, had had to roll his window down and lean out to see the gate. Markham walked to the window and caught the heavy scent of damp earth and sodden leaves. Winged sycamore seeds spiraled down into the wet hedgerows. A soaked world.

Marjorie Renfrew hovered at the edge of the Peterson-Wickham-Markham triangle, unable to join in the casual science chat. John Renfrew prowled the room, pushing little plates of finger food a centimeter nearer the true center of the little tables. His face was flushed and he seemed to have drunk quite a lot already.

The doorbell rang. None of them had heard an approaching car in the hammering rain. Marjorie dashed to answer, looking relieved. Markham heard her voice in the hall, running on with no pause for an answer. “What a terrible evening! Isn’t it absolutely awful? Come in, haven’t you got a raincoat? Oh, you must to live here, no matter what, I’m glad Greg reached you. It was at the last minute, yes, but I am quite surrounded by scientists here and need someone to talk to.”

He saw rain dripping steadily from the edges of the porch roof behind Jan, before Marjorie closed the door, bucking it with her shoulder to get it into the jamb. “Hi, hon.” He kissed her with a casual warmth. “Let’s get you dry.” He ignored Marjorie’s fluttering and tugged Jan into the living room.

“A real wood fire! How lovely,” Jan said.

“I thought it would cheer things up,” Marjorie confided, “but actually in a way it’s depressing. It makes it seem like autumn and it’s still only August, for goodness sake. The weather seems to have gone haywire.”

“Do you know everyone?” Greg asked. “Let’s see, this is Cathy Wickham.”

Cathy, now sitting on the sofa with John Renfrew, nodded to her.

“Oh, to be in California, now that August’s here, eh?”

“And this is Ian Peterson. Ian, my wife, Jan.” Peterson shook hands with her.

“Well how did the experiment go?” Jan asked the company at large.

“Oh heavens, don’t start them on that,” Marjorie said quickly. “I was hoping we could talk about something else now you’re here.”

“Both good and bad,” Greg said, ignoring Marjorie. “We got a lot of noise, but Cathy’s detailed explanation of the noise level and spectrum sounds good, so with better electronics John here can sidestep some of the problem.”

“I’m surprised Peterson can’t get it for you with a telephone lift of his finger,” Cathy said sharply. Heads turned towards her. She wagged her jaw back and forth, the sidewise swaying intense and unconscious.

“My omnipotence is overrated,” Peterson said mildly.

“It’s impressive to see the scientific tail wagging the CIA dog.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“People ought to put files back the way they found them.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you are—”

“Are you going to hide behind that memorized sentence forever?”

Marjorie stared at the two in horror, caught by the spark of tension. “Won’t you have something to drink, Jan?” she broke in desperately, her voice a little too loud. Peterson’s brittle retort drowned Jan’s quiet reply.

“Here in England we still rather think discretion and civility oil the wheels of social intercourse, Miss Wickham.”

“Doctor Wickham, if we’re going to be formal, Mister Peterson.”

“Doctor Wickham, of course.” He made the word an insult. Cathy straightened, her shoulders rigid with fury.

“Your sort can’t bear to see a woman as anything but a mindless lay, can you?”

“I assure you that is not the case in relation to yourself,” Peterson said silkily. He turned to Renfrew, who looked as though he wished himself a thousand miles away. Markham sipped his drink, looking from one to the other with alert interest. Better than the usual party small talk…

“Funny, that wasn’t the impression I got this afternoon,” Cathy continued doggedly. “But then you haven’t learned to take rejection very well, have you?”

Peterson’s hand clenched on the stem of his glass, knuckles bleached white. He turned slowly. Marjorie said feebly, “Oh my goodness.”

“You must have misunderstood something I said, Dr. Wickham,” he said at last. “I would hardly raise the subject with a woman of your—ah—persuasion.”

For a moment no one else moved or spoke. Then John Renfrew walked to the fireplace and stood in front of it, legs planted firmly apart, holding his mug of beer. He frowned, looking every inch the solid English squire.

“Look,” he said, “this is my house and I expect my guests to behave civilly to each other in it.”

“You’re quite right, Renfrew,” Peterson replied promptly. “I apologize. Put it down to intolerable provocation.” It had the effect of making Cathy seem ungracious.

“Oh, God,” she said ruefully. “John, I’m sorry that I had to get carried away in your house. But I did enjoy being rude to him—”

“That’s it,” Renfrew declared. “No more,” He waved his mug in dismissal.

“Well done, John,” Jan said. “Stand on your rights. Now, if I might have that drink—” She moved towards him, smiling. The rigid circle broke, tension dissipating. He took her elbow and they crossed to the sideboard. Peterson went to talk to Marjorie. Greg sat down on the sofa next to Cathy Wickham.

“Well, I think I took a fall in that round,” she said cheerfully. “But it was worth it for a minute or two there.”

“Did he actually proposition you?” Greg asked. “I was right there and never noticed a thing.” Jan joined them, perching on the edge of the sofa.

“You kidding?” Cathy laughed. “Of course he did.”

“Familiarity breeds attempt, or something. But to come right out and—”

“Oh, he was very subtle and discreet about it. Left room for a gracious refusal, save his ego and all. Self-satisfied bastard. But Jan disapproves of my actions, don’t you, Jan?”

“Well, yes. I think you made things too uncomfortable for John and Marjorie. Frankly, I have the same opinion of him that you do, but…”

“This is fascinating,” Greg said. “Let’s hear you two get your claws into the poor guy.”

“Poor guy? He’s a highly successful, confident, slimy toad who despises women. You going to take his side as a man against two catty females?”

“He despises women?” Greg asked, startled. “I would have thought the opposite was true.” Jan and Cathy exchanged glances.

“He loathes us, every one. And he can’t stand rejection by an inferior being. Why do you think he implied I was gay?”

“Are you?”

She shrugged. “I’m bi, actually. But, yeah, I tend to prefer women. Don’t look now, put old Ian is putting the make on our dear hostess. She’s blushing like crazy.” Markham twisted in his seat and stared across the room, curious.

“Christ, I can’t imagine that. She doesn’t strike me as sexy at all. Besides, she’d probably talk all the time.”

“Now who’s being catty? At least she’s obviously heterosexual—that’s all Peterson needs to soothe his wounded ego. It’ll be Jan’s turn next.”

Jan raised an eyebrow. “Oh, come now. With Greg right here in the room? Anyway, he must know that I don’t particularly care for him.”

“You think either of those facts would bother him? Go talk to him—I’ll bet it won’t take five minutes before he makes a pass at you. Then you can cut him down to size.”

Jan shook her head. “I’d rather avoid the experience.”

“God, that’s too much,” Greg said. “I can’t believe he’s that bad.”

Cathy made a face at him. “Well, bugger you. I’m going to talk to John about his experiment.” She got up and left them.

“Well?” Greg asked.

“Well, what?”

“Don’t you think she’s overdoing it on Peterson? Do you think he really made a pass at her?”

“I’m quite sure he did. But I think what bothers her is being pulled away from her own work by someone who won’t treat her like a scientist. And it can’t be pleasant knowing one’s personal papers have been gone through.”

“Oh, the hell with it. Peterson seems quite reasonable to me, compared to the rest of the company. Renfrew’s dull outside of the lab, Marjorie’s a nit, and Cathy’s abrasive. Jesus. There’s only thee and me that’s normal.”

“And even thee’s a bit queer,” she supplied wryly. “I thought you were feeling good about the experiment. Why is everyone in such a terrible mood?”

“You’re right—we’re all edgy, aren’t we? It’s not the experiment. Personally, I’m not looking forward to flying to Washington.”

“You’re what?”

“Oh, God, of course—I haven’t had a chance to tell you yet. Here, let me get you another drink and I’ll explain.”

“But we’re planning—”

“I know, but this will only take a few days, and…”

•  •  •

The other guests studiously avoided the sofa while Jan and Greg settled their family logistics. Then the Markhams sat for a while listening to the flow of English conversation around them, the long a’s, the rising inflections.

Cathy had wandered out to the patio, announcing that the rain had passed, unnoticed in the tension of the living room. A stretched, artificial good humor seemed to tighten the throats of Peterson and Renfrew as they talked. Their words became clipped and slightly higher in tone. Marjorie’s rushed sentences wove between theirs in a kind of birdlike counterpoint. Peterson was describing the immense paperwork boondoggle surrounding the saving of the Sumatran and Javan species of rhinoceros. The World Council had decided to redirect money for the Javan die-back into isolating the rhino. Ecoinventory had dictated that as part of the stabilization plan, aimed at saving species. The one species in excess was, of course, humans. The Council’s policies had been applauded by the environmental types, politely not mentioning that in the zero-sum game of resources, this meant less available land and money for people. “Matter of choices,” Peterson said distantly, swirling the amber fluid in his glass. Wise nods.

•  •  •

Greg Markham said to Marjorie Renfrew, “No, no, forget that scene between Cathy and Ian. Means nothing. We’re all edgy lately.”

They were standing on the patio, at the edge of the orange glow from inside.

“But scientists are less emotional, I thought, and to have them at each other…”

“First, Peterson’s not a scientist. Second, all that about suppressing emotion is mostly a convenient legend. When Newton and Hooke were having their famous dispute over who discovered the inverse square law, I’m sure they were livid with rage. But it took two weeks to get a letter back and forth. Newton had time to consider his reply. Kept the discussion on a high plane, y’see. These days, if a scientist writes a letter, he publishes the damn thing. The interaction time is very low and the tempers flare higher. Still…”

“You don’t think that explains the irritability of the times?” Marjorie observed shrewdly.

“No, there’s something more, a feeling…” Greg shook his head. “Oh rat’sass, I should stick to physics. Even there, of course, we don’t really know much that’s basic.”

“Really? Why?”

“Well, take the bare fact that all electrons have the same mass and charge. So do their antiparticles, the positrons. Why? You can talk about fields and vacuum fluctuations and so on, but I like the old Wheeler idea—they have the same mass because they’re all the same particle.”

Marjorie smiled. “How can that be?”

“There’s only one electron in the universe, see. An electron traveling backwards in time looks like its antiparticle, the positron. So you bounce one electron back and forth through time. Make everything out of that one particle—dogs and dinosaurs, stones and stars.”

“But why would it travel back in time?”

“Tachyon collision? I don’t know.” Greg’s levity evaporated. “My point is, the foundation of everything is shaky. Even logic itself has holes in it. Theories are based on pictures of the world—human pictures.” He looked upward and Marjorie’s eyes followed. Constellations hung like blazing chandeliers. A distant airplane droned. A green light winked at its tail. “I rather like the old, certain things,” she began shyly.

“So we can have archaic and eat it, too?” Greg asked impishly. “Nonsense! We have to go on. Let’s get back inside.”

•  •  •

Markham went to the window and gazed up at the clearing skies. “Makes you wonder what sort of clouds dropped this water, doesn’t it?” he mused, half to himself. His head turned, looking idly around the yard, and suddenly stopped. “Say, who’re they?”

John Renfrew came over to the window and peered out into the gloom. “Who—I say, they’re into our garage!”

Markham turned from the window, thinking of the man at the bus stop the other day. “What’ve you got in there?”

Renfrew hesitated, studying the shadowy figures who now had the garage door swung open. “Tools, old things, I—”

“Food!” Marjorie exclaimed. My preserves, some are stored there. And tinned things.”

“That’s what they’re after,” Markham said decisively.

“The squatters down the way,” Renfrew muttered to himself. “Call the police, Marjorie.”

“Oh my,” she said, unmoving.

“Go on.” John gave her a push.

“I’ll do it,” Jan said briskly. She ran into the hall.

“Let’s head ’em off,” Markham said. He picked up a poker from the hearth almost casually.

“No,” John said, “the police will—”

“These guys’ll be long gone by that time,” Markham said. He strode quickly to the front door and opened it. “Let’s go!”

“They may be armed,” Peterson’s voice called after him.

Markham sprinted out the door and onto the lawn. Renfrew followed.

“’ey!” a voice from the garage cried. “Scarper!”

“Come on!” Markham called.

He ran towards the dark maw of the open garage. He could make out a man stooped over, picking up a carton. Two others were carrying things. They hesitated as Markham came down on them. He raised the poker and called out towards the house, “Hey, John! Got your gun?”

The men unfroze. Two bolted down the drive. Greg charged forward and got between them and the gate. He swung the poker. It made a loud swoosh. The men stopped. They backed away, looking at the hedges to each side of the yard.

Renfrew ran at the third man. The dark figure sidestepped and slipped past him. At that moment Cathy Wickham came down the steps of the porch. Renfrew slipped on the wet grass. “Christ!” The man picked up speed, looking back at Renfrew. Cathy Wickham, trying to make out the shadows on the lawn, stopped dead in the path. The figure smashed into her. They sprawled on the stones.

Markham swung the poker back and forth in front of him. The men seemed paralyzed by the sound of it. In the gloom they could not tell how close it came. Markham could not judge the distance either. Ignorant armies clash by night, he thought giddily. Should he charge them?

“Your friend’s bought his,” he called out clearly.

They both turned to look. The yellow rectangle of the doorway sent a blade of light out onto the glistening lawn. In the beam John Renfrew yanked the fallen man to his feet and said “What’re you—”

Markham stepped quietly forward and swung the poker crack into the nearest man’s leg.

“Awrrr!” The struck man collapsed. His partner saw Markham rearing up out of the shadows and backed away. Suddenly he turned and ran diagonally across the lawn. Markham tried to keep both men in sight. Two down, one to go.

“Look out, Greg, he’s got a knife!” Cathy Wickham shouted.

The man turned, transfixed by the yellow light in the center of the lawn. Metal glinted in his hand. “Naw, you just leave off,” he said roughly.

Markham walked towards him. Swoosh, swoosh. The sound caught the man’s attention. Ian Peterson came trotting forward. “Let him go,” he called to Markham.

“Hell no!” Markham answered with gusto.

“No point in risking—”

“We’ve got ’em,” Markham insisted.

“That one’s getting away!” Cathy Wickham cried. The man lying in the drive had moved at a crouch towards the gate. As she spoke he ran with a limp to the gate and vaulted over it.

“Damn!” Markham said with chagrin. “Should’ve covered him.”

“No need for melodramatics,” Peterson called mildly. “The police will be here shortly.” Markham glanced back at Renfrew.

“Eric!” the man with the knife shouted. “Switch!”

Abruptly, before Markham could understand the signal, the two men moved. Renfrew’s captive wrenched away from him and dashed back towards the garage. Markham followed. The man ran into the dark of the garage. Markham hesitated. He could see nothing. Suddenly the man reappeared, a shadow. Markham could make out that he had something long in his hand. Markham backed away warily. He saw the man with the knife moving towards the gate. An elementary maneuver to distract him. The shadow stepped further into the light and swung a rake at Markham’s head. Markham ducked and jumped backward. “Christ, somebody—” Both men suddenly ran for the gate. One turned and threw the rake directly at Markham. He dodged aside. “Bastards!” he shouted and hurled the poker after them into the darkness. He listened to their footsteps fade away.

“No use going after them,” Renfrew said at his side.

Cathy Wickham agreed, “Leave them to the police, Greg.”

“Yeah, okay,” he mumbled.

They trailed back into the house. There was a moment of silence and then everyone began chattering about the incident. Markham noted that those who had stayed inside and watched from the door had a different view of the details. They thought Renfrew had subdued his man, when in fact the fellow had simply been waiting for a proper opening for escape. The relativity of experience, Markham thought. He was still puffing from the exertion, adrenalin singing in him.

From the distance came the two-tone hooting of a siren.

“The police,” Peterson said swiftly. “Late, as usual. Look, I’m going to cut and run before they get here. I don’t want to have to answer questions for the rest of the night. You fellows are the heroes, anyway. Thanks for the drinks and goodbye, everyone.”

He left hastily. Markham watched him go. He reflected on the fact that their first unthinking response had been to assume the shadowy figures were thieves. There was no hesitation, no one suggesting it was some mistake, people who’d got the wrong house. Twenty years ago that might have been the case. Now…

The others, standing in the center of the living room, drank a toast to each other. The siren drew nearer.

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