William Brace scowled with irritation as the conversation in the tap room hushed before the door had quite closed behind the slouching figure now standing under the Tiffany glass lamp. The old man shivered from the cold outside and turned towards the bar, his face shining under the warm yellow glow of the lamp, and his lips moved quietly as he turned. “Why do we always do that every time he shows up?” Brace asked, breaking the silence. Brace was new to the place.
“Because that, my undergraduate friend, is Adolph Forster,” I said.
William couldn’t suppress a gasp of astonishment. “You don’t mean– ?”
“I do mean. The very same.”
“Supersymmetry hasn’t been the same since. But he’s talking to himself– “ An embarrassed hush cut William’s indignation short.
The Wednesday night crowd at the “Black Crow” always flew their conversation at half-mast as the clock behind the bar struck nine, because that was the moment when Adolph Forster invariably appeared every weeknight except Mondays. He shambled up to the bar, nodded at Brent, and Brent slid a fresh glass bearing a pint of Guinness in front of the old man. Forster took the glass, turned from the bar and disappeared back under the Tiffany lamp and through the door into the chill of the hall, still mumbling softly to himself, the pastels cast by the lamp shade drifting across his bent back.
“We do that,” I offered, lifting my own glass of stout in a salute to the back of the disappearing physicist, “. . . out of the pious hope that we’ll catch him saying something we ought to hear.”
The tap room door swung silently to behind Forster.
“As a matter of fact,” Harry Fenton said, turning back to the table with a wistful sigh, “I once came across a young man who spent a bit too much of his time talking to himself. Came to a rather bad end as a result of it, I might add.”
When Harry spoke, he made no pretense of inaudibility and was gratified to find that he was able to lower the background noise in the “Black Crow” a few decibels himself. Harry was very well aware that he never talked to himself.
“As you know, I went to an obscure college for my undergraduate degree, and so I enjoyed the inestimable benefits of the small college environment. . . .”
“Like no funding?” Barry Dravit sneered.
“Not all science requires a government grant,” Harry said, almost sounding like a sympathetic professor faced with such a dull pupil. “String theory was developed with nothing more than pen and paper. . . .”
“And disproved with billion dollar accelerators,” Jack Terrance finished.
“Fair enough,” Harry said. “But I was doing my own X-Ray diffractometry as a sophomore in college, and let’s have a show of hands from the Ivy Leaguers and the Left Coasters in here who were permitted to even grovel before such a machine on the unlettered side of graduate school.”
Harry was pleased with the lack of a response and continued.
“Because our small college was the only one in a small town, we had a singular relationship with the locals, and it was not at all unusual for the department to receive a telephone call requesting some personal consulting service or other. The geology department was responsible for nearly all the water wells in the county. But when the head of the physics department called me into his office one quiet summer afternoon and asked if I were free to run out to edge of town to assist Dr. Torrence with calibrating some timing equipment of his, I was more than usually impressed.”
“Never heard of him,” Dravit said.
“No, I supposed you hadn’t. And now you won’t,” Harry said. “But I had. And I was most anxious to meet this man.
“The head of the department left me with Torrence’s address and a curious warning to beware offending the man. Turns out he had broken the jaw of a colleague two years ago in a jealous moment over Mrs. Torrence at a conference on epigenetics. The head warned me that he was a sullen, somber, and wrathful individual, capable of nearly anything.
“Dr. Torrence seemed pleasant enough that afternoon. I was supposed to calibrate some timing circuits he was using in some sort of invention or other–he insisted on telling me as little as he could about the project, but I could tell from his laboratory that I was in the presence of a true renaissance man. His workshop would have drawn envious looks from any physicist at my red brick university, but it would have done the same for any physicist at CalTech. And from the chemists. And from the biochemists. Dr. Torrence was a man of varied skills and interests.
“At the moment, his interest was physics, and Dr. Torrence thought he had stumbled onto something interesting. I’m sure that you will agree. . . .”
Harry sniffed thoughtfully at the glass before his lips for a few seconds.
“Dr. Torrence had enough money to indulge himself, and his pet indulgence was science. Well, one of them, at any rate. He had another indulgence, or so I thought at first–her name was Melissa. I caught sight of her on my way through the drawing room towards the laboratory, and once I regained my breath I was certain that this calibration job was going to require several visits to Dr. Torrence’s home, if there was anything I could do to slow the job down. She was the sort of girl that graduate students in physics hear about from time to time, and occasionally catch a glimpse of in some freshman survey course, but do not as a matter of course get to meet. She was the sort of girl you want to see in the sunlight, if you take my meaning. Blond hair, with a cast of gold, lips like coral. And her eyes!” Harry paused for effect. “They were a kind of aquamarine, clear and sparkling. I think I remember the color more than anything else. She was a sort of living jewel, a golden and beryl thing. . . .” Harry sighed loudly and drew at his beer mournfully.
“I saw no more of this living jewel that afternoon, but I was fairly well distracted with what I did spend my time with. I won’t pretend to be able to identify most of the equipment in Dr. Torrence’s laboratory, but despite the fact that he was now chiefly interested in physics, obviously he had spent some time doing some fairly dramatic analytical chemical researches previously, because sunk into the center of the floor was an enormous vat of–they used to call it chromerge, back in my undergraduate days–it’s a vile mixture of sulfuric acid and chromium trioxide and a few other things. It’s used to wash analytical equipment chemically clean of organic contaminants. It will remove pretty much anything from test equipment, including the fingers from your hand if you happen to get the stuff on you. Whatever chemical experiments he had been performing must have been industrial grade, for, although I never saw him immerse any of his analytical equipment in the vat of acid, I did notice there was a hefty block and tackle suspended from the ceiling above.
“Torrence wasn’t interested in chemistry any longer, although I understand that he had managed to develop a couple of patentable processes before he tired of it and moved on to other things.
“ ‘Other things’ for my purposes meant some timing equipment, and that’s what I spent the next several days on. He had understated the problem. He didn’t need calibration of existing equipment. He needed entirely new timer designs. I was tickled–this would take a month or more to complete, and I needed the money. He wanted some circuits set up to trigger a series of devices with the most precise timing I have ever seen required in any experimental setup anywhere. Remember the Italian neutrino fiasco? Sloppy work compared to what he was doing. I spent the afternoon getting the lay of the land reading Torrence’s notes. He kept everything on paper–he was terrified of hackers or the government getting into his computer–and all his notes were collected on a clipboard that he left on a rolling cart next to his work bench. Every month or so he would photocopy the lot and than take the stack down to a safe deposit box he maintained at the bank. He couldn’t bring himself to trust magnetic media.
“I finally grabbed my jacket about six that afternoon, my mind still occupied with thinking about another variety of magnetic media, although I hadn’t seen or heard her voice since I set to work. Torrence was nowhere to be seen either, so I let myself out of the laboratory, wandered down the hall in the general direction of the front door, and was on the verge of exiting into the honeysuckle-scented summer dusk when Melissa appeared out of a corner, the late afternoon sunlight slanting through her golden hair and catching in the corner of her beryl eye.
“It would scarcely convey the impression I would like to make about this woman to say that she was beautiful. One’s breathing went fairly shallow whenever she appeared to a degree in inverse proportion to her distance.”
“Not the inverse of her distance squared?” Barry Dravit quipped.
“Well, now you mention it, I imagine the effect would increase dramatically. . . . But there was something else about her as well, a kind of–well–an omnivorous sort of look that I found vaguely frightening. Think of it as her personal cosmological constant.
“ ‘Dr. Fenton,’ she began, and I hadn’t the heart to discourage her about my credentials at the time, ‘I do hope you are going to find working with my husband the sort of thing that–well–I suppose this project is going to take some time?’
“I was delighted with the prospects this comment suggested, and tried to keep my voice under control. ‘It may take some time. I have no idea what the project is all about, but I can tell you that it will take a month at least for me to do what he has engaged me to do.’
“ ‘And he will be unable to make any other progress until you’re finished with your part of the work?’
“I nodded helpfully.
“A look of almost hungry relief passed over her face. ‘Do be thorough, Dr. Fenton,’ she said. ‘Time is–well, it’s more important to me than efficiency. He’ll try to hurry you, but. . . .’ And then she stopped and let me out with a whispered good bye and I settled into my car, although I confess I had to steady my hand before I could get the key into the ignition. I don’t regard myself as a dashing man. . . .”
“Neither do I,” Brent said from across the bar.
Harry scowled. “But there was no denying this young woman wanted something from me, and she was anxious to know that I would be around for a while. I could only tremble as I drove home and wondered what she had in mind.
“The next day I was back again after lunch, with at least an idea of how I might be able to give Dr. Torrence the precision timers that he needed. He required that a series of unspecified devices should be capable of triggering absolutely simultaneously. I don’t mean simultaneously the way you and I think of it, gentlemen. I mean truly simultaneously. His equipment could tolerate errors of no more than a single Planck interval, the time it takes for a photon to cross a proton. There is, as you know, no interval of time more brief. Time itself gets–grainy–below that limit.
“I have to confess I found the challenge riveting. It took some doing, and some late night conversations with half the physicists in the department and some phone calls to a number of engineers in California, and we managed to develop a few new processes of our own, which Dr. Torrence graciously left to us to exploit, although he had provided me with the central theory to the timers himself. He could afford to ignore patents as trifling as those we produced in giving him the precision he needed for his experiment. After all, he was hunting far bigger game. . . .
“I returned to Dr. Torrence’s home every afternoon for the rest of that week, and every afternoon I was met at the front door by Dr. Torrence and again as I left by Melissa, always with the same question about the progress of the project. There was no doubt about her interest in his work. She had no idea what he was trying to do, but she knew she was not interested in him getting through with it anytime soon.
“Yet she never said anything other than that. She simply wanted to make sure I would be back tomorrow, and that there was still a good deal of work to be done before the project would be finished. I began to wonder if perhaps I had mistaken her motives.”
Barry Dravit spluttered in his drink.
“Towards the end of the month, I could tell that we were getting close to what Dr. Torrence needed, and nowhere near, so far as I could tell, closer to what Mrs. Torrence needed. I had attempted to make myself as graciously available to her as possible, and all to no avail. Any conversation with her was limited to making sure I would be working on this project for some time yet. Meanwhile, in the laboratory we had a series of triggers set up that would respond at least fifteen percent of the time within the peculiar constraints he had set us, and that was sufficient for his mysterious purposes.
“Dr. Torrence was unconcealed in his excitement. I’m afraid that he rather let his guard down in a way that suggested he was playing with me.
“ ‘You know, Fenton,’ he said confidentially leaning against a rack of test equipment as he interrupted me one twilit evening, ‘I have to confess I have felt guilty about dragging you away from your loved ones every night for the last month.’
“ ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That’s not a problem. Nobody’s waiting at home for me to show up.’
“ ‘Nobody?’ He expressed surprise, maybe a little too much surprise. ‘I don’t believe it. Nobody?’
“I shook my head.
“ ‘You need a girl, Fenton,’ he said, pressing the issue. ‘Somebody just like Melissa. What would you say to somebody just like Melissa?’
“I must have gaped with alarm and embarrassment, for the next thing I remember was his cheerful laugh as he turned back to the equipment before him on the bench. After all, her behavior had been perfectly–bafflingly–innocent, and my own fantasy–well, he couldn’t read my mind, could he? But he persisted in a peculiarly sinister way, and the department head’s dire warning came back to haunt me. ‘She’s just what you need,’ Torrence said. And then his face seemed to cloud over. ‘And I dare say,’ he continued, a little less audibly, ‘That you’re just what she needs. Hm, hm. I think we’re about ready to give this thing a whirl. How’s your heart doing this evening?’ His lips parted with a gleam that looked definitely menacing.
“ ‘My heart? Pretty sound,’ I lied.
“ ‘What do you think, then? Shall we have Melissa down and light her up?’
“ ‘W-what?’ I dropped a screwdriver as he spoke, and it clattered off the table and across the floor to tumble into the vat of chromerge, sunk into the floor like some sort of diabolical Jacuzzi. With a gentle hiss of effervescence, the tool dissolved in the acid.
“ ‘Never mind,’ Torrence said casually. “That’s a loss I can easily afford. There is very little in life that can’t be easily replaced.’
“And with that he closed up the cabinet, screwed down the access panel, and stood back to admire his work. It was indeed something to be proud of. The timing circuits I had been working on were mounted in a separate cabinet. The devices they were intended to trigger were enclosed within a black steel box that I had never been invited to inspect. But without a doubt, the machine was ready, and Torrence was in a mood to try the thing.
“I was invited to stay to dinner, the first time he had extended that invitation, and I did so, although the dinner was a depressing affair. I spent all my time staring guiltily at Melissa, despite the fact that I was innocent of anything untoward. Melissa spent all her time staring at Dr. Torrence, which was frustrating, but which told me everything I needed to know.
“It was obvious I was in the presence of that strangest and most perverse of romantic entanglements, a woman who is truly in love with her husband. Everything seemed clear to me at once. She had no interest in me. She had merely been interested in knowing how long I would delay her husband in his work, because, presumably, she had hoped she might have him all to herself while I worked. But clearly he had been avoiding the opportunity to spend his time her, and the strain of all the frustration was telling on her.
“Dr. Torrence, for his part, seemed oblivious to the attention she lavished upon him. I’m not sure that Dr. Torrence knew she was there. I’m certainly sure Melissa was unaware that I was there. It was a most depressing spectacle, I can assure you.
“So when the dinner was cleared away and Dr. Torrence announced he was heading back to the laboratory, I was only too anxious to follow. Melissa joined us, and five minutes later found the three of us standing before Dr. Torrence’s test bench with several cubic feet of equipment humming in the somber light of the lab.
“Dr. Torrence said nothing. He simply stepped before an empty small glass container connected to the machine. He stood before a small panel of controls, operated a few switches, and then looked around the room, a vacant glaze in his eyes.
“ ‘Melissa, let me have your ring.’
“She recoiled in horror. I was afraid she was going to faint.
“ ‘Your engagement ring. Let me have it.’
“She hesitated, but he simply looked steadily at her until at last she twisted it off her small, fine finger and handed it to him, and then she retreated to a corner, her fingers trembling before her lips.
“ ‘And now you, Harry.’
“I confess I could feel myself backing into a corner.
“ ‘Something of yours. Something unique.’
“I stammered for an instant, then dug around in my pocket and pulled out the collection of odds and ends that I carry about with me. Among the debris and lint I came up with my key chain, and fixed within a mesh of wire at the end of a small chain on it was a tiny marble cut from a quartz crystal. I pried it lose from the wire cage and handed it to him.
“Dr. Torrence looked over the quartz sphere carefully.
“ ‘You would recognize it if you saw it again?’
“ ‘Yes. I think so.’ The quartz crystal wasn’t flawless by any means; it had a small inclusion, a tiny cavity within that was filled with fluid. It used to charm my sense of the romantic origins of things to consider this little sample of the original liquid out of which this crystal had solidified. I had spent enough time looking at the little cavity to be fairly certain I would know it if I saw it.
“But then Dr. Torrence hesitated.
“ ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ he said at last. ‘May I keep this until tomorrow?’
“Fifteen minutes later, I was on my way home, very much perplexed, Dr. Torrence smiling benignly–or so I hoped–at me from the front door, Melissa hanging adoringly on his arm–perhaps the word should rather be ‘imploringly’–and ignored by her husband.
“When I did not receive a phone call from Dr. Torrence the next morning, I took it as a good sign. Evidently my timers worked fine. At least, assuming he attempted his experiment, whatever it was supposed to be.
“In fact, I did not hear from him again the following day either, and busy as I was with preparing my own projects for the end of the semester, I hadn’t the time to consider what might be going on out at his laboratory, so when I checked my mail I was surprised to see an envelope with his return address scrawled across the top.
“The envelope contained a note, my quartz marble, and another quartz marble the same general size and shape. The envelope also contained Melissa’s engagement ring. I could hardly feel the tips of my fingers for panic when I picked it up.
“The note said simply: ‘Thanks for the effort. Results are everything I dreamed of.’
“I was mystified. What was I doing holding Melissa’s engagement ring? That was her most treasured possession, if not her wedding ring itself. Certainly not the Doctor–she would hardly have dared to suppose she possessed him. I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Had they quarreled? Had she left him, and shied the ring at him in a final fit of spurned anger now that he was back in his beloved laboratory around the clock? I supposed that sooner or later she was going to tire of all that wasted energy. Maybe she finally had. After all, she had appeared to stake a lot of hope in the few weeks she had had the doctor’s attention while I perfected the timers. And she hadn’t seemed to get much in the way of results despite all her efforts. Maybe she had finally had enough.
“But I was preoccupied, and I dropped both the crystals and the ring in a drawer and tried to forget about it. There was some mystery behind this ring, but when he wanted it back, as he surely would, I would have it ready to return. I didn’t suppose for an instant that she would leave him for long.
“He did not call, and neither did Melissa, not through finals week and not after a week into the summer holiday, which found me kicking around research projects that might fill the next three months of my schedule.
“I ran into Melissa in town three months later, just in front of the Mud Puddle coffee house. She looked radiant. Radiant? No, that doesn’t do it justice. She was a different woman. Quite literally.
“I managed to get her to let me buy her a cup of cappuccino, and I basked in the glow of this woman’s glorious radiance while she told me all about herself. To distill it to its essentials, she was happier than she had ever been in her life. Her husband had developed the habit of doting on her in ways he never did in the past when he had time for nothing but his experiments. That was all over now. These days, she had him all to herself, all day long. He did nothing that was not without her. She was going to have a child. It was all official, and the first visit to the doctor was what had brought her into town this morning. She had been wishing and waiting for this moment for years, since they had married in fact. And now at last it was all coming true, and she was even more beautiful in her happiness.
“I congratulated her and the Doctor. This was delightful, evidence that everything out at the Torrence’s country home had somehow been patched up and was going better than could be imagined.
“Melissa couldn’t stop babbling on about her happiness, and we parted after a half hour–she couldn’t bear to be away from him any longer than that–and on the doorstep to the Mud Puddle, she took my hand.
“Grasping it lightly, I saw she was wearing her engagement ring.
“I may have held her hand on the doorstep to the coffee shop longer than was quite proper, I’m not sure, but I was at a loss to understand what I was seeing. As soon as she took her leave, I raced home, tore open my bureau drawer and inspected the envelope. Sure enough, there were the two marbles, and there was Melissa’s ring.
“I was seeing a geology student in those days, and although she was a little put out with me for being harder to get than usual these last few weeks, I managed to get her to take me into the optical mineralogy lab in the geology department that night. When I brought out the ring and showed it to her, her eyes lit up in a way that I will not soon forget, I’m sorry to say. When I told her I needed the ring tested, her eyes assumed a quite different sort of light.
“I don’t confess to know much about the subject myself, but she did, and she began to subject the ring to all sorts of tests with oils and x-rays. Finally, she straightened up from a petrographic microscope with a sigh. ‘It’s real, Harry. And it’s probably worth a fortune. Who’s it for?’ Her lips curled in knowing contempt.
“ ‘Please, Kathy! You know I have eyes only for you. I got this from a man I have been working with.’
“ ‘Well, aren’t you popular with your clients! I hope you two will be very happy together.’
“She then turned to the quartz spheres and began to examine them, one test after the next. But as the next hour wore on, her face grew more and more intent, and she glanced sidelong at me too frequently to fool me into thinking she was admiring my looks.
“ ‘OK, Harry. What’s the trick?’
“ ‘Trick?’ I asked, glowing with innocence.
“She held the two marbles up in the palm of her hand. ‘Yes. The trick.’
“What this charming young geologist had discovered was that the two quartz marbles were perfect duplicates. They were not merely similar. They were completely identical. As you know, gemstones can be mapped, a common practice with jewelers in order to safeguard especially valuable stones. Mapping them involves microscopic examination of them and cataloging all the miniscule flaws and variations that all natural crystals contain, even those that look flawless to the naked eye.
“She had mapped these two quartz marbles and discovered that they were completely identical. Each tiny fracture or flaw, even the tiny fluid-filled inclusion, was present in both crystals, identically. Even a scratch on the crystal that got there when I fell over the railing at the Goldstone radio telescope during my junior year was present on both crystals.
“Then I realized what Dr. Torrence had been doing. He had developed a technique for duplicating items. I don’t pretend to understand how he did it, but he did, obviously. He had duplicated my quartz marble and Melissa’s engagement ring.
“Nothing good lasts forever, I suppose, and so it began to appear with Melissa’s new found happiness.
“I went out to Dr. Torrence’s house on the Wednesday following, in response to a phone message he left with the secretary of the physics department to the effect that the timers needed re-calibration.
“Dr. Torrence himself answered the front door. He seemed unusually jolly, at least by my experience with him. “ ‘What on earth are you doing here, Harry?’
“I gaped for only a brief instant at this apparition. ‘Why, you asked me to come and re-calibrate the timers, of course. It sounded urgent, so I came right away.’
“He looked dazed for an instant, and then he closed his eyes and nodded, stepping out of the way in the door and ushering me through. ‘I see. Tell you what. Go into the conservatory. Melissa’s there. Say hello. She’ll be pleased to see you. Then come on into the laboratory in about fifteen minutes.’
“Something in the way he said this troubled me. There was perhaps a little too much–understanding–in his voice. As if he had feared all along he would ask me to come out and re-calibrate the timers, and blast it all, sure enough he finally must have done it. It was a queer feeling for me, but I tried my best benign smile on him and made my way to the conservatory. After a bit, I took my leave of Melissa and went down the hall into the laboratory, where I found him working.
“ ‘Dr. Torrence,’ I began as I pried the back off the cabinet that housed the timers, ‘I really appreciate that ring, but you know, I’m not about to get engaged, and. . . .’
“ ‘Yes, the copy of Melissa’s engagement ring that you sent me. I really appreciate it, and I know it must be worth a fortune, but. . . .’
“ ‘Melissa,’ he muttered, and his cheeks went pale against the growing red in his eyes. ‘She sent you the marbles?’
“ ‘Yes. And the. . . .’
“ ‘And the ring.’ Dr. Torrence assumed a look of angry understanding. ‘Melissa,’ he hissed again. ‘Now, why did I do that?’
“But he was only talking to himself.
“I left as soon as possible, and I was almost glad that I had not encountered Melissa on the way out the door.”
“My good fortune didn’t last, however, as I saw her in the Baker Street Bookstore on the following Saturday. She was ambling down the fiction aisle, her finger running along the shelf as she looked for something or other, and I ducked my head and turned right around to head for the door and ran straight into Dr. Torrence.
“He looked over his book at me, and once he recognized me, he broke into a broad grin. ‘Harry! Look here, Melissa. Here’s Harry.’ He took my elbow and hauled me down the aisle to stand beside her. ‘Listen to this, you two,’ he began, and cleared his throat, and began to read.
“I could scarcely believe my own ears. He read the stuff straight, too. Not a trace of irony anywhere, and Melissa listened adoringly to the man she loved reading Blake to her, and meaning every word of it.
“I saw Dr. Torrence one last time after the bookstore. He came by the physics lab, his brow dark and forbidding, a different man from the one I had seen only days earlier in the bookstore.
“ ‘Harry, I’d like to ask a favor of you.’
“ ‘Anything, Dr. Torrence.’
“ ‘I’d like to borrow your pistol.’
“My expression must have spurred a little caution on his part, because he attempted a ghastly smile. ‘I have a coyote in the forest to the west of the house, and he’s killing the housekeeper’s chickens. She insists that either the coyote goes or she does.’
“ ‘It wouldn’t do to lose her,’ I said, my voice a little faint, perhaps.
“ ‘What? Who? Oh, no, no, indeed. You understand. It’s a bother, I know. I can’t get a permit. You know . . . past transgressions with the law and all that.’
“We went back to my apartment and fetched the weapon. But when he stepped out the door with a promise to return it in a few days, I wasn’t altogether certain I wanted to see it again. Not unless I could verify for myself that Melissa was hale and hearty first.
“The first thing I knew when the crisis finally came was that Melissa was alive and well, because it was she who called me.
“ ‘Harry! He’s locked himself in the laboratory. He has a gun! I saw it! He’s in there raving, Harry–I can hear him, bellowing, smashing things–I’m afraid, Harry, I don’t know what to do!’
“ ‘Are you OK?’
“ ‘I–I guess so. . . . Of course!’
“ ‘Who’s in there with him?’
“ ‘Nobody! He’s raging, Harry, but he’s alone. The door is locked. There’s nobody else in the house. The housekeeper is in town doing the shopping. It’s just me and Wilmer!’ She began to cry.
“Wilmer? I realized I had never learned his first name. Wilmer.
“ ‘Listen, Melissa. Don’t go anywhere near that lab door. Call the police–’
“ ‘I can’t, Harry! They’ll arrest him!’
“ ‘Melissa, if he kills himself in there you’ll wish he was arrested instead!’
“ ‘Listen to me. Call the police right now! I’m coming out there. See you in ten minutes.’
“I managed the trip in seven, in fact, and was mildly surprised that my trip through town hadn’t attracted the attention of enough police to make Melissa’s call redundant. But none followed me out into the country, and when I arrived, I was a little surprised to see that none were there. I should have guessed. The prospect of seeing her husband carried out the door in the arms of the police was probably only slightly more attractive to Melissa than seeing him carried out on a stretcher.
“She caught me at the front door, and wringing her poor, tiny, cold hands together, she walked beside me all the way down the hall.
“ ‘Oh, Harry! This is awful. He’s been in there since last night! I heard him fire a shot just a few minutes before you arrived! I was so terrified–but he’s still in there, raving like a madman, Harry!’
“And so on and so forth, a constant litany of anxiety as we trotted down the hall towards the laboratory.
“Several seconds before we drew alongside the heavy laboratory door, which was securely closed, we could hear the sounds of arguing from within the laboratory.
“ ‘I thought you said he was alone! Who’s in there with him?’ I asked.
“ ‘Nobody, Harry.’ She said flatly, her face downcast to the stone floor. ‘I’ve heard him doing this several nights now, but never like this! It’s him, Harry. Just him! Listen!’
“I did listen. And she was right. There were two voices in the room, but they were both Dr. Torrence. He appeared to be having a very animated discussion with himself. It was hard to hear through the heavy door into the laboratory, but there was no mistaking the voice. Only snatches of conversation made it through into the hall: ‘. . . stay away from her. . . .’, ‘she’s as much mine as. . . .’, and not much besides.
“We cringed by the door together for another minute, listening to the voices beyond the door growing more and more animated, Melissa’s face becoming more and more distraught, until at last there was another gunshot, followed immediately by a third, and then a terrific crash, the sounds of a struggle, a closing splash of liquid, and I threw myself against the lab door, but I’m afraid to no avail.
“The police got the door open when they arrived fifteen minutes later.
“The inside of the lab was a wreck. The chemistry workbench was tumbled over, shattered glassware sparkling on the floor, crunching underfoot. The air reeked of something acrid mixed with the smell of gunpowder in the confined laboratory.
“The cart that bore the controlling processor for his experiment lay on its side perilously near the vat of chromerge. The controller itself was nowhere to be seen, although an ominous effervescence stirring the liquid in the vat of chromerge suggested that it had fallen in and been dissolved by now. The precious notebook was nowhere to be seen as well, no doubt following the controller into the acid.
“Dr. Torrence was sitting on a stool, his left arm propped against the electronics lab bench, his right hand on his knee, regarding us patiently as we entered the room. The police had drawn their pistols before they entered the room, but there was little need. Dr. Torrence seemed quite calm and peaceful, and the pistol lay on the floor a good ten feet from where he sat. He sported a torn shirt and a bruised face, but no bullet holes.
“ ‘Wilmer!’ Melissa rushed across the room heedless of the broken glass and the overturned hardware and halted, peering intently at Dr. Torrence.
“ ‘What’s all this?’ Sergeant Gattrick asked.
“ ‘All this what, officer?’ Dr. Torrence asked. ‘Oh, this mess? It’s just my lab, gentlemen. Nothing illegal about breaking one’s own dishes, is there?’
“The Sergeant stepped closer to the pistol, cautiously picking it up by inserting a pen into the barrel. ‘This your weapon?’
“Dr. Torrence shook his head. ‘It’s his.’ He nodded at me.
“There are those moments when you know, you just feel it in your body, that no matter what happens, it’s not going to be good.
“Well, what’s it doing here?”
“ ‘I guess I dropped it,’ I said.
“ ‘You weren’t even in here!’
“Melissa, rather forgotten, stole cautiously up to Dr. Torrence.
“Dr. Torrence got up off the bench, took her in his arms, and began to weep.
“ ‘Here, what’s this?’ The sergeant asked.
“Not having anything else to do, I followed his gaze. There was a splash of blood on the floor, not far from the vat of chromerge, still bubbling ominously. The police gathered around the red smear, and then looked questioningly at Dr. Torrence.
“Dr. Torrence, perhaps distracted with Melissa, made his one mistake at that moment. ‘It’s not mine. I’m quite uninjured.’
“ ‘Then whose blood is this?’
“Torrence looked helplessly at me, then at the police. ‘I don’t know,’ he answered.
“In short, they hauled us all down to the station. They examined us all. There was no injury on any of us. The blood turned out to match Dr. Torrence’s, perfectly. The pistol was indeed mine, although it was covered with Dr. Torrence’s fingerprints. Several rounds had been fired, and the police subsequently retrieved all but one of them from the walls of the laboratory. They gave the missing one up for lost.
“They sampled and examined the chromerge very carefully. But it was an old vat, much used, and there was no way to determine for certain what had been dropped in there.
“Dr. Torrence wasn’t saying a thing. The DA waited patiently for somebody to turn up missing, as they say, but after a year, he forgot all about the case.
Harry sat back and stretched, and then finished his drink. “And I’m afraid that’s that. The last I heard, Dr. Torrence and Melissa had retired to the South Pacific, and they had half a dozen children, and she’s ecstatic and he is as well. I get Christmas cards from them every year, with photographs of the family.”
For several seconds we all sat in silence as Harry slid his glass onto the table and began to button his coat.
“Wait a minute,” David Rhys said. “Harry, you can’t make timers work the way you described. Why, the objects they have to trigger have to be no more than a proton’s width apart to ensure simultaneity. . . .”
“Who said they weren’t? Are you looking for proof? What sort of proof would work, gentlemen? The DA had blood on his hands, literally, and he couldn’t prove anything. Oh, I could show you a remarkable couple of quartz marbles, but that wouldn’t convince you of anything.” He sighed philosophically. “You just have to have faith in the human heart, gentlemen. Or else you won’t believe anything, no matter what I put in front of you.” He started for the door.
“Why did Torrence do it?” Charley Cross asked.
“A driven man like that? Imagine if you could duplicate yourself, how much more work you could get done. And his duplicate, well, he certainly began to get things done, didn’t he? And Melissa wouldn’t suspect a thing, since the original was so good at making himself scarce.”
“Harry!” William Brace said, his voice rising in outrage. “Wait one minute. . . . If Torrence made a copy of himself, it would have his personality too!”
“Of course it wouldn’t,” Harry said. “Whatever makes you think it would? You can make a body, that’s simple enough stuff, but the soul, well, that’s another matter.”
But Harry wasn’t listening. He was talking to himself as he gained the door and pulled it open. He stopped just as he opened the door and looked back at us wistfully. “Melissa–what a wonderful girl! Dr. Torrence couldn’t be a luckier man. Shame he didn’t make another one of her. I just sometimes wonder. . . .” He started out, the light of the Tiffany lamp making a harlequin of his face.
“Wonder what?” By this time William Brace’s voice was tight.
“Why, I just sometimes wonder–which one of them won the fight? Goodnight, gentlemen.”
© 2012 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs
All rights reserved.