There are two things you need to know about Shelley O'Shaughnessy: she was beautiful, and she hated my guts.
The feeling wasn't mutual.
I want you to understand that as well: I liked Shelley. A lot.
Shelley was twenty-two years old, with freckles and green eyes and long, curly red hair. You didn't need the name to know she was Irish. In an age when women were trying harder and harder to look undernourished and angular, Shelley was rounded and softly, gently curved. Her legs were strong and well-shaped, her bottom full, her breasts smallish, but round. Her nose turned down a bit and crinkled when she smiled. And when she did smile, her whole face opened up, and everything was right there, and she was beautiful.
In summer months, she liked to wear plain, one-color skirts that ended just above the knee, and brightly-colored socks that rolled down around her ankles. Her knees were adorable. Each of them bore two or three tiny scars: mute testimony to the learning process as applied to bicycles and horses.
None of that is what mattered.
What mattered? That she was intelligent and literate and educated and humorous. That she had an Associate's degree in advertising, and was going back for her Bachelor's in communications. That she read Stephen King and watched Looney Toons and yelled rude comments at Phil Donahue on the dispatch office TV.
The dispatch office. Yeah, I probably ought to explain that. Shelley was the service dispatcher for Middlesex Cable. We're the local cable TV operator, a small, privately-owned outfit that serves twelve towns in Eastern Central Massachusetts, plus, for reasons unknown to me, Nawshawptuck Falls, New Hampshire.
What's a service dispatcher? She keeps track of the service technicians -- "Cable Repairmen" to the public-at-large -- assigns their work, routes them to trouble-spots, keeping in touch with them -- and sometimes riding herd on them -- by radio. It's a demanding job, requiring a number of different skills, including the ability to think quickly on one's feet, and Shelley handled it like a pro.
And who am I? I'm Seth Callahan, the installations dispatcher. Shelley was beautiful. I'm not. I'm a fat man, six years Shelley's senior, weighing in at about three-fifty, with dark hair and a scraggly beard and grey-blue eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, and a deviated septum.
Like I said, I liked Shelley. A lot. But her behavior made me nuts.
I thought, for the first few weeks after Carolyn Trask, the dispatch manager, brought me over from Customer Service, that it was the normal period of adjustment, of fitting into the social fabric of the office.
But months went by, milestone after milestone -- the day I was given my own desk and terminal, rather than wandering like a castaway between Carolyn's and Shelley's; the afternoon about three weeks thereafter when I was given my own wastebasket; the morning I received radio clearance; the lunch-hour I covered for Shelley, and handled an outage successfully, myself; the move from our ill-fitting old building to a custom-designed new one...
With the passage of each, I looked to Shelley for the first sign of that acceptance that would mark me as part of the team. With the passage of each, I was disappointed. As far as she was concerned, I was, at best, an occasionally usefull piece of furniture, and at worst, a lower form of life. I'd never be anything more.
But for all that that infuriated me, it wasn't the worst thing.
Are we all that obnoxious, that amoral, that arrogant, when we're twenty-two? Do we all run that recklessly in pursuit of our own pleasures, with no thought to the moral ramifications, the consquences to ourselves or to others? No, I can't accept that. We may all sow some of those seeds, but very few bear the fruit as bountifully as Shelley.
She and Carolyn had an argument a few days after we moved to the new building. Not a fight, mind you, but a good-natured wrangle over a simple disagreement.
It was a cool day in early April, and nothing much was happening. Carolyn was talking about some movie she'd seen on TV the night before. She was a lovely, slender, dark-haired woman in her early thirties, with sharp features and spectacular breasts. A crude description, perhaps, for a woman I so highly respect, but if you'd ever seen her, you'd understand.
"The guy was such a creep, though," Carolyn was saying. "He was cheating on his wife!"
Shelley laughed, her tone teasing. "Oh, yeah, there's nothing worse than a married person who cheats!"
"Oh, Jesus Christ!" Replied Carolyn, with exaggerated irritation. "If I hadn't gone with Mike, I'd never have been able to leave Merle. Anyway, you're one to talk!"
"Hey, I've never been married! I wasn't cheating! If he was, that's his problem!"
"Oh, for God's sake, Shelley!" Carolyn turned to me, "What do you think, Seth? Who's worse, a married person who cheats, or someone who sleeps with a married person?"
I looked back and forth between them for a moment, considering the question. "Well..." I finally said, "I really can't say that either is morally better or worse... But I can say this much: It's dumber to sleep with a married man than to be a marr ied woman and cheat on your husband."
Shelley speared me with a look. "Dumb? How is it dumb?"
I held her gaze. "It's dumb because you can never trust the guy. How can you? By being with you, he's breaking the most solemn promise a man can make: Think about it, the louse is screwing around on his wife! How can you trust him?"
"I didn't want to trust him," Shelley replied. "I wanted to fuck him!"
I looked up quickly at her, not sure I'd understood. "Excuse me?"
"I didn't love him. I didn't want to. I wanted sex. That's why I picked a married man. It was safe. That way, there was no risk of having, like, a relationship."
I shook my head slowly. "That's even dumber. It's a waste of sex."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Shelley began to look angry now.
"It means that sex is too important to waste it where love isn't involved. It reaches in and touches us in places so deep we're not even fully aware of them. It's dumb to play games in those places. Dumb and dangerous."
Carolyn shook her head. "The only difference between sex with love and sex without it is how happy you are to wake up beside the guy."
I looked at her for a long time. "Is that really how you feel?"
She paused for a moment before answering, and the phone on her desk rang, and she turned away to answer it.
But Shelley shook her head. "Sex is sex, Seth. As long as you get off."
"Yeah, well, if all you want is to get off, there are ways to do it without messing around with somebody's marriage. That's why the Good Lord gave you a right hand and an imagination."
"That's not the same!" Shelley snapped.
"Why not? I thought it was just about getting off."
Shelley snorted in disgust. "You just don't get it, do you?"
Carolyn laughed and covered the phone. "Not very often, anyway."
I turned in my seat and blew her a kiss. She gave me the finger. It's that kind of an office.
I remembered that conversation a couple of weeks later. It was another of those momentary lulls in the office routine. Carolyn and I were discussing kids: my two nephews, her nine- year-old daughter.
"Oh, hell!" She said suddenly. "That's right! I'm bringing Steffi over to my sister's for dinner tonight!"
I swivelled towards her, looking interested. "Sister? You have a sister?"
Carolyn smiled, knowing where the joke was going. "Yes, I do."
"Is she cute?"
"Hmmm..." I grinned, rubbing my palms together.
"She's also married," Carolyn added. "Yeah," chimed in Shelley, turning back from her desk under the garage window. "She's married!"
"Hey," I murmured, remembering that earlier conversation, "that wouldn't stop... Some people."
Carolyn laughed as Shelley's face darkened.
"OOoooohhhhh!" said Carolyn. "He got you Good!"
"Shut up!" Shelley snapped. "I'm twenty-two years old and I can sleep with whoever the fuck I want!"
I smiled and waggled my eyebrows as I turned back toward my terminal, chalking up a point scored in the air beside me. I didn't know at the time she was sleeping with Goeff Coughlin.
Goeff was our chief tech, smallish and stocky, with a barrel chest and bright, intelligent, unpredictable eyes. He knew more about the technical aspects of the cable TV operation than anybody else in the state. He was legendary for his integrity, his wild sense of humor, his honor and his responsibility. He had a wife and two small children.
I would never have guessed how much the knowledge of that dalliance would bother me. I still wasn't sure why it did.
Oh, part of it was your basic jealousy. I would have loved to have had the chance to make love to Shelley O'Shaughnessy. As much as her behaviour annoyed and occasionally appalled me, I'd be a fool not to admit that.
Another part of it, though, was a feeling that Goeff had somehow betrayed me, and that was stupid.
I kept thinking about a conversation I'd had with him, not a month before. I'd kiddingly suggested that he allow a customer to bribe him -- for reasons I don't even remember, something even more trivial than free HBO -- and he'd reached over and t aken hold of my bicep, looking very seriously into my eyes. If he'd been my doctor, my first thought would've been, cancer.
"Don't ever say that to me, Seth," he said, quietly, gently, very, very seriously. "I know you're only kidding: no offense intended, and none taken. But, Seth, there's nothing on Earth I'd sell out my integrity for. It's all I have, all I am. Plea se, don't even joke, because there isn't enough money or power or anything else in the world to make it worth giving that up."
I'd dropped my gaze. "I'm sorry, Goeff."
"Don't be. You didn't know. Now, you do."
It's all I have, he'd said, all I am. The words echoed in my head, the first morning he'd driven into work with Shelley in his truck in yesterday's clothes.
It's all I have, he'd said, all I am, and I wondered what he had left, what he was now.
I tried to ignore it. It was, after all, really none of my business. But down inside, down where I lived, it hurt.
And Goeff's sharp senses and sharper instincts missed nothing. He hit me with it one particular morning when I was dropping a note in his office.
"Seth, are you pissed at me?"
I stopped, almost out the door, looked back at him. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you're not doing Monty Python schtick, or telling elephant jokes, or... Whatever."
"I'm busy, Goeff. I mean, we're opening Ashmont--"
"Don't bullshit me, Seth. You're pissed, and you're pissed at me, and I want to know why."
I held his gaze for a long moment, considering. Goeff waited, a picture of concerned patience.
"No, you don't," I finally said. "If I have a problem with you, it's my problem, and I'll have to deal with it."
Goeff looked levelly at me for a moment. "Seth, it's not good for you to sit on stuff like this, and, frankly, it pisses me off. You have something to say to me, you spit it out!"
"Yeah, well, if it was any of my fucking business," I said quietly, "I would."
"What the hell is that supposed to--" Goeff began, starting to rise from his chair. He froze halfway there, interrupting word and motion as realization dawned.
"Oh," he said.
I held his gaze for another moment, then nodded and left his office.
And walked, full speed ahead, into Biff Shoemaker, who owns the company.
He was an athletic fellow in his early thirties, with sharp, dark eyes and good reflexes. It didn't help. My three-hundred- fifty-odd pounds plowed into him and knocked him to the floor before I even knew he was there.
"Jesus Christ, Biff!" I said, reaching down to help him up. "I'm sorry, I didn't even see you! Are you all right?"
"Yeah, fine, fine," Biff muttered, taking my hand. I pulled him up, stooped after his dropped papers. "Why don't you watch where-- Ah, hell, forget it."
I handed him his papers. "Really, Biff, I'm sorry."
"Nah, don't worry about it." He flashed me a sudden smile, straightening his neat, dark hair with one hand. "I didn't even rock you, did I?"
I shrugged. Theres a key to getting along with Biff, a secret which, once you really understand it, makes most encounters reasonably painless. The secret is this: Biff is, basically, a big, goofy kid, with the money to buy great toys. One of them just happens to be Middlesex Cable.
Goeff appeared at the door, drawn by the sounds of collision. "Everybody okay out here? Oh, hi, Biff. What's up?"
All at once, Biff's face lost its jovial cast. "I need to talk to you, Goeff. It's important."
Goeff stepped back into his office, and Biff stepped past him toward the desk. Goeff turned to follow him, and I turned away again. Biff's important talks with Goeff, aside from being none of my business, tended to be phenomenally boring discussio ns of the stress-tolerances of optical fibers. I had a good enough grasp of such technical matters, and strong enough communications skills, that Goeff had drafted me in the past to help him explain these things, and I was not much inclined to repeat the experience today.
"We've had a bomb threat," Biff continued. "And I think it's serious."
I spun around in the hallway, stared back at him.
Goeff's eyes were drawn to the motion, and, noticing me, he shook his head. "Oh, hell, Seth, come on in here."
I put a hand to my chest. Moi?
Biff, apparently, held similar doubts. "Him?"
"Yes, him! he's heard enough to send Rumor Control into overdrive, he might as well hear it right. Besides, I think you're going to want him here while you decide what to do."
"I guess you're right," Biff said. He looked at me. "Besides, you're good at this kind of stuff. You might have something to contribute."
"Biff, I figured out the end of Presumed Innocent. That doesn't make me Nero Wolfe." But nonetheless, I stepped inside. This promised to be too good to miss. Biff closed the door behind me.
"Okay," said Goeff. "Tell me--" He glanced at me. "Us."
Biff picked up Goeff's phone, began punching buttons. "I came in this morning, listened to my voice mail. This is what I got."
He hit the speaker-phone button. "Hi, Biff," came the oily voice of Dave Jiminez, the Customer Service Manager. "This is Dave. I just wanted to let you know I'm really looking forward to the meeting this Tues--"
Biff made a face and stabbed the Skip button. "Kiss-ass," he muttered. I exchanged an amused look with Goeff. I had some history with Dave, from my days in Customer Service.
Biff noticed. "Yeah, well, it gets a little less amusing, guys."
He hit the button again. This voice was younger, thick with anger, and somehow, vaguely, familiar.
"I guess you think you're some pretty hot shit, don't you, rich boy?" The voice said. "You took her away from me, and that really makes you something, huh! Well, you're not the only person who can take things away from people. Get ready to lose it all, man. It's all going up in smoke! Get her away from there if you want her to live; I'm blowing the whole ball of wax sky-high."
That last was what gave it to me, of course. And Goeff as well, and probably what gave it to Biff, for that matter, in the first place. My head whipped around toward him.
"Teddy Janvier," I said.
Goeff was nodding. "Suzanne's boyfr-- Uh, ex-boyfriend."
He blushed, a deep, ruddy color, and looked at his feet. I wondered, inanely, if that was the same reaction he'd have if someone mentioned Shelley in front of his wife.
Of course, it was a fairly embarrassing business. Biff was romantically involved with Suzanne Blake, one of the customer service reps. She was a beautiful, slender, dark-haired girl, maybe a year younger than Shelley, and if she were any sweeter, someone would have formed a religion around her. Biff had been obviously and completely taken with her from more-or-less the first moment he'd seen her, but had maintained a respectful distance, as she was involved with Teddy Janvier, a young man she'd be en seeing since high school. And if, perhaps, Biff hadn't let the dust settle after their break-up (perhaps a month before the move to the new building) before asking her out, neither had he preceded it. And, well, frankly, who could blame him?
Teddy Janvier had taken it badly, though. (And, well, frankly, who could blame him?) There had been an incident a few weeks before when he'd confronted Biff when he and Suzanne were working out a local health club. Words had been exchanged. No mor e had escaped the squashing foot of Rumor Control, but Suzanne told me it had been the only time she'd spoken to him at all since they'd broken up.
I'd met him once, at a company Christmas party a year and a half before: a dark-haired, quiet, wiry young man, with china- blue eyes and a piratical scar running from his forehead, through his right eyebrow, and on down his cheek.
Biff looked back and forth between us. His gaze settled on me.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"I think you should call the police."
Goeff looked over at me and grinned. "Absolutely."
"Then you think it's real?"
"Doesn't matter," Goeff said. "Call the police in any case. But, yeah, I think it probably is real."
I looked over at him. "The bit about getting Sue out."
"Right. That's the kicker."
"Yeah," I nodded.
Biff looked back and forth between us, looking more annoyed than anything else. "Would you two like to share it with me?"
Goeff nodded. "It's that last bit of the message, Biff. He still loves Suzanne, you know that."
Biff's jaw tightened. He nodded, once.
"Teddy hates you, and he wants to hurt you, but... Not at the risk of hurting her. So he warned you, so you'd get her to safety. If this was just a prank, he'd let her stay. He doesn't want her dead, but a good scare never hurt anybody."
Biff nodded. "Unless he's counting on our thinking that."
"What, a double-bluff?" I asked. Biff nodded. "I doubt it, Biff. Frankly, I wouldn't think Teddy'd be, uh, imaginative enough to come up with a single bluff."
"You mean he's dumb? Could he be too dumb to make a working bomb?"
"No, not dumb, exactly..." I thought about what I knew of him from talking to Suzanne, from the inconsequential party conversation of more than a year ago. "Just... Literal. He wouldn't see any particular gain in just saying he w as going to blow you sky-high."
"Great." Biff was quiet for a moment. "Okay, Seth, go back to work. Keep your mouth shut. Don't worry. I'll probably be clearing the building shortly. Goeff, call the police."
Goeff turned to his phone and I went back out into the hallway again, my mind racing in circles.
"What's up?" asked Carolyn, as I wandered back into dispatch.
"I, uh..." I focused on her. "I'm not real sure."
I sat down at my desk, looking from the terminal to the Far Side calendar to the little toy U.S.S. Enterprise on the stand by my paperwork rack, trying to plan ahead. Of all the days to close up shop!
It was, no doubt, how Janvier had planned it. Today was the first day of installations for the second, and most important, phase of Ashmont, Massachusetts. Ashmont was a small, densely populated, and very affluent town located just outside the spr awl of Boston proper. We'd done the first phase of installs -- sort of a "practise phase" -- over the preceding week, and already there was trouble. Something -- Goeff wasn't sure what -- was causing power surges in the cable signal, which in turn were ca using sporadic waves of catastrophic converter-box failures. Converter boxes -- the little de-coding devices that sit on top of subscribers's TV sets -- are the keystone of any cable system: without them, in system, and working, and for the most part reli able, your cable company's in trouble.
But "trouble," in whatever form, would have to be taken care of without delaying Phase II. Phase II was home to three State Senators, three local TV News anchors, perhaps a half-dozen rock stars of varying notoriety, the conductor of the Boston S ymphony Orchestra, one United States Senator, and the Boston Globe's Mark Halliburt, one of the most widely-read and influential newspaper columnists in the country.
Cancelling out on installation day was probably not the best first impression to give these folks of Middlesex Cable. I started straightening up the paperwork on my desk: route sheets, to keep track of the installers; converter logs, for a paper r ecord of which accounts received which converter boxes; a computer printout giving relevant details on the day's scheduled installs -- names, addresses, phone numbers, special instructions and the like.
Carolyn looked over at me from her desk. "Something wrong, Seth?"
I looked up at her with a guilty start. "I, uh, I... Oh, hell."
"Seth?" She looked concerned now. "What is it?"
I shook my head. "I really... I..."
I looked at my feet. I guess a career in espionage would have been ill-considered.
The phone on her desk bleeped, and Carolyn picked it up. "Yes."
She listened attentively, her eyes widening. "What?"
Shelley turned to look back at her.
"I don't..." said Carolyn.
"What," said Shelley. "What?"
I took the Enterprise and the Far Side calendar from my desk, put them into the black Movie Channel tote bag I carried to and from work each day.
Carolyn focused on me, then looked over at Shelley, then back at me. "I see," she said. Then, "Yes, that makes sense." Then, "Will Jimmy be taking care of the terminals?"
I frowned. That would be Jimmy Hewlett, our Data Processing Maven, as I called him -- officially it was D.P. Manager, but that seemed too pompous for Jimmy. What was Biff up to?
"I really think I should go," Carolyn said.
She looked back and forth between Shelley and me. "No, they're both as good at their jobs as I'd be... I know a manager should delegate, but--" A pause. "I understand that, but... I really... All right, Biff. I'll tell them. Seth already knew some of this stuff, didn't he? No, no, he didn't say anything... Uh- huh... Okay, Biff."
She put down the phone.
"Well?!?" said Shelley.
Carolyn looked over at me. "You tell her, Seth."
"I, uh..." I looked over at Shelley. "There's been a bomb threat. Teddy Janvier's threatened to blow up the company."
Shelley stared at me, aghast and incredulous. "You knew that, and you didn't say anything?"
"Biff told me not to."
"You son of a bitch! Didn't it occur to you that our lives might be in danger?"
"That's enough, Shelley," said Carolyn. "Biff told Seth to keep quiet while he figured out what he was going to do about it."
"Yeah? And if Biff hadn't called, when do you suppose he'd have gotten around to--"
"I said, Enough!" snapped Carolyn. "There's no time. Shelley, Seth, get your current paperwork and the phones off your desks. Shelley, get the radio. You two're going back to the old building."
"Oh!" I smiled as I chucked the paperwork into my tote-bag. "I take it Jimmy's going to set us up with terminals and modems?"
Carolyn nodded. "The tech's'll all be on the road with full supplies of boxes. Any problem calls'll go to the answering service, and they'll relay the important ones to you two. Shelley, you'll dispatch the jobs to the techs in the usual way. The power's still on and the old direct phone lines're still in place.
"Seth, we're paging the installers, and giving them the old eight-hundred number, from the old building. Those lines're still active, and they'll stay that way. Installers will call in, Business As Usual. Sales reps, you'll blow off.
"Customer Service, Sales, Engineering, Accounting... Everybody's being sent home. The managers, me included, will be around here somewhere, with Biff and the Police, waiting for word from the Bomb Squad.
"You guys have all that?"
Shelley and I exchanged a glance, nodded."Okay, then. Get out of here. Jimmy Hewlett will meet you at the old building."
I grabbed my tote and my phone and headed for the door. Shelley stood, gathering up her paperwork, and turned to Carolyn.
"Keys?" she asked.
"Oh, shit," said Carolyn. "Wait here, I'll go get 'em from Biff."
Shelley shook her head. "We'll wait in the parking lot."
Carolyn flashed us a quick grin before leaving the office.
"Yeah," she said. "Right."
Jimmy Hewlett was waiting by my car with a couple of modems and several modular telephone-type cables. He was a tall, thin, brown-haired man, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, with glasses that were cunningly designed to conceal their astonishing t hickness. His appearance should have hovered between geeky and gawky, but was saved by an air of competent professionalism, and an easy, open grin which belied a sense of humor nearly as black and twisted as my own.
"Hi, Seth," he called, as I approached the ugly, battered grey Pontiac.
Shelley walked on by toward her car, ignoring us both pointedly.
Jimmy pointed at my dented-in trunk. "Open up, in the name of Stealth Cable!"
I laughed and fumbled out my trunk key.
The joke had originated one night in Jimmy's apartment, a few weeks before the company's big move. I'd dropped in to hang around for awhile, trading office gossip and dumb jokes, and found Jimmy in a state somewhere between laughter and disgust.
"Project meeting today," Jimmy said as he let me in. His tie was still on, but loosened, and he had a bottle of Killian's Red in his hand.
"Oh, God." I pointed at the fridge, raising my eyebrows, and, when he'd nodded, proceeded to help myself to a Coke.
"This was even better than usual, though." Jimmy returned tiredly to his easy chair. I followed suit, sprawling untidily onto the couch. It groaned alarmingly. "Did I tell you about Dee's plan?"
"Yeah," I said. "Bill-stuffer." Dee was Deirdre McCarty, our lovely young Marketing Co-ordinator. As Jimmy'd told me previously, Dee had designed a little direct-mail piece to go into our bills, publicising the move, and including a little map, so customers could find our new location.
"Right," Jimmy replied, nodding slowly. "Well, she proposed it today. Showed Biff the sample she'd dummied up. Did you see that?"
I nodded. "It was gorgeous. What'd she work, two days on that thing?"
"Three." Jimmy took another pull at his beer. "Biff barely glanced at it, and said, No way."
Jimmy nodded once, a quick, jerky, mechanical motion, and uttered an abbreviated, "Yuh!"
Jimmy shook his head in disgust, his voice taking on a mocking tone. "'Oh, no, we can't do that! We want to publicize this move as little as is legally necessary. I don't want the customers to know where to find us. We have to tell 'em where we we nt; we don't have to tell 'em where it is!'"
I almost choked on a mouthfull of soda. "No way!"
I understood the reasoning behind this: it was easier for customers who knew where we were to turn in their equipment and cancel their service. Biff felt that if customers were forced to wait at home for our techs to go out and disconnect them, le ss of them would. I understood the reasoning. That didn't make it smart.
Jimmy shook his head, now beginning to smile. "Dee and I just sort of looked at each other, and I swear to God, I laughed out loud. I mean, Christ! Maybe we should just put a cloaking device around the whole fucking company!"
I laughed, remembering the Star Trek episodes he was talking about. "Yeah! I like it!" I sketched block letters in the air with one hand. "Stealth Cable!"
We argued on into the evening about the various strategies of Stealth technology we'd need to disguise the comings and goings of service trucks and the like, and, within a week, the joke had permeated most of the company... Except, of course, into Biff's office.
"I told you we should disguise this place as a pizza shop!" I told him as we loaded the modems into the trunk. "You want a hand with the terminals?"
He nodded, walking back toward the building. As I followed, the doors opened and most of the company -- about forty-oddpeople in all -- began filing out. Jimmy and I ground to a halt;why fight the tide?
Right up front came the customer service reps, a dozen impossibly beautiful, unattainably young girls in single file, with Dave Jimenez, the customer service manager, in the lead. They looked like nothing so much as a sixth-grade class, following Teacher back to their bus after touring some museum -- except these sixth-graders were eighteen and nineteen years old, and looked like Cosmopolitan cover girls.
"I wonder if we'll get paid for this," grumbled a statuesque blonde named -- I promise -- Bambi.
Dave turned back over his shoulder, his sharp, weasel-like features disapproving under his jet-black hair. "Let's have no talking back there," he said in his oily voice. "It's very, very important that we keep calm and behave like professionals."
Jimmy and I exchanged a disgusted glance. I could tell he'd also noticed the beads of perspiration shining in Dave'smisshapen mustache.
"I bet he screams and runs in twelve seconds," Jimmy murmured to Bambi. She suppressed a giggle.
When she passed me, I added, "You notice he managed to get out first."
With a ferret's instincts, he turned toward me. I couldn't tell how much -- or even whether -- he'd heard, so I turned toward him and flashed a big, phoney smile. He turned back toward the door, saw that the last of the CSRs were outside, and clap ped his hands twice. "Okay, girls, time to go. I'll see you all tomorrow."
And he turned and headed for his car, his pace too fast for a walk, but too slow for a trot.
Jimmy looked at his watch. "Only eight seconds."
The CSRs laughed, and headed for their vehicles.
I looked at Jimmy. "I thought managers were supposed to stay in the area."
We watched Dave's car disappear from the parking lot, and shook our heads.
By this time the administrative and accounting staff were out the door in a genial, orderly clump, and there was a break in the crowd, and Jimmy and I ducked in and headed back to dispatch.
"Trunk?" asked Jimmy.
"Floor of the back seats," I suggested.
"Hah! With all that trash? Not on your life, pal! These things're expensive!"
I shrugged. He had a point: I live by the motto: Who Needs a Trashcan? I Have a Back Seat!
We'd reached the Pontiac, and I set my burden on the vinyl roof. Jimmy followed suit. I reached for my keys.
"Okay," Jimmy said. "How's this: one on the passenger side floor, one in the seat. Put the seatbelt around that one to keep it from falling on the other."
"Great!" I unlocked the passenger side door, opened it, turned to pick the terminal back up.
I heard footsteps, and Jimmy made an uncomfortable noise. When I turned back, the terminal in my hands, I found myself face to face with an angry Shelley O'Shaughnessy.
"What are you doing with that?"
"Putting it in my car."
"Like hell you are! That's my terminal, Seth!" She was pointing at the fringe of photographs that framed the monitor screen: Roger Rabbit, a ski-jumper, Shelley and a friend standing arm-in-arm, and a slightly sick visual joke about an in ept seeing-eye dog. "Give me that!"
She snatched it away from me, nearly dropping it, and juggled it for a moment before getting a grip. She turned and thrust it at Jimmy, who looked at it.
"Here!" She said. "You bring it over!"
Jimmy looked at her for another moment. "Bring it yourself, Shelley," he said, and to me: "I'll meet you there, Seth."
He turned and headed for his Honda Civic.
Shelley glared after him for a moment, then rounded on me with renewed fierceness. "I'm only telling you once, Seth: if you've fucked with this terminal in any way, I'll get your ass fired!"
I shook my head tiredly. About a month before, as a joke, I'd gone into her terminal at lunchtime, and changed the set-up to give all prompts and command messages in French. The resultant emotional pyrotechnics had been completely disproportionate and terribly entertaining. But once was definitely enough; a good magician never repeats a trick.
"Shelley, just save it, would you?" I said. "Even if you could get me fired, which you know damned well you can't, I've neither the time nor the inclination to play with your set-up again. In the immortal words of Steve Brody, I done it once't ."
"I'm just warning you, that's all!"
I closed the car door, went around to the driver's side. "You got the keys yet?"
Shelley looked away. "I've got 'em."
"Fine, let's get out of here."
And I climbed behind the wheel and started it up.
The old building was perhaps a mile away. It had originally been constructed as a sort of mini-shopping plaza, with self- contained professional offices upstairs. When I was eleven or twelve years old, my mother would drag me along on shopping tri ps to a Pepperidge Farm bread store at the end of the building. Middlesex Cable had started out leasing two or three of the storefronts and a couple of the upstairs offices, plus one of the two finished basement spaces. The other at the time was a cheap o pthalmologist. As the company added towns and employees, they took over more and more of the availlable space, until, by the time I joined, we had just squeezed out the last remaining CPA from upstairs.
There was a central hallway joining most of the upstairs, but the shopping-level spaces and the finished offices in the basement could only be reached through their outside doors -- not a lot of fun when we needed to get from customer-service (sho pping level) to dispatch (basement level, entrance in back) in February.
Over the main entrance, which served both customer service and the stairs leading up to the office level, the old Middlesex Cablesign still hung. I wasn't sure whether this was just more of Biff's policy of not publicizing our mov e, or he was just too cheap to take it down. It didn't seem politic to ask.
I pulled around back, and found Jimmy waiting by the dispatch office entrance. I climbed out and walked over beside him.
"You got the key?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Shelley's got it."
We stood in silence for a moment.
"Listen," said Jimmy.
I did so. Sirens, far away. How far? A mile? Probably.
"I never knew the sound could carry that far," I said.
Jimmy laughed. "Maybe they'll arrest Shelley."
I looked, a little guiltily, at my feet. Jimmy had really liked Shelley O'Shaughnessy until I'd gotten transferred over to dispatch. After a couple of weeks of my griping about her behavior, he'd started developing an active dislike of her. Since she'd never really done anything to him, that bothered me a bit. We waited in silence.
I heard a car turning into the parking lot. "That'll be her now."
But the little car that rounded into the back parking lot wasn't Shelley's old, maroon Gremlin. It was a cherry-red 1990 Saab 900s Turbo, Biff's "working car." For fun he had a Porsche. He pulled up beside Jimmy's car and climbed out.
"Hello," he said.
I nodded, and Jimmy said, "Hi, Biff."
I shrugged. "On her way, I guess."
"Oh." Biff was silent a moment. "Good, good. Jimmy. Shouldn't we be using leased lines with these modems? The dial- ups have so much in-line interference..."
Jimmy looked over at me, rolling his eyes, then back at Biff. How he gets away with stuff like that is beyond me. "Ideally, yeah, Biff. But there isn't time to lease lines from the phone company. On the other hand, if you're really in the mood for a dedicated line, I can start working on getting a leased line for the Nashawptuck Falls office...."
Biff gave him a bad look. "Come on, Jimmy. We've been all over this. You know we can't afford that."
Jimmy took his glasses off and covered his eyes with one hand.
Then there was the sound of a car pulling in, and he looked toward the driveway. "Right, Biff," he said, as Shelley pulled in.
Shelley parked, pocketed her keys, took her terminal out of her passenger seat and walked over. Carolyn's big leather purse hung from her shoulder. "Hi. I've got the keys."
She tried to hold the terminal with one hand while digging in her pocket for the keys. The terminal wobbled alarmingly, and she grabbed it again.
I stepped over, held out my hands. "Allow me."
She stared silently at me for a moment, then looked over at Biff, then back at me, and handed me the terminal. There was something in her eyes that seemed to take it as a defeat. A battle lost, though, the green eyes said to me. Not the war.
She walked over to the door into dispatch and opened it, turning on the light.
"Any word from the police?" I asked Biff, following her over.
He nodded. "Yeah. Those guys work fast. Already cordoning off the building. They've also done some checking. Seems Janvier hasn't been seen, at home or at work, for two days. His foreman says two cases of dynamite are missing from the construction site."
"Oh, great," said Shelley, taking the terminal from my hands. "Then this is real."
Biff nodded. "Looks that way."
Jimmy was by my trunk, and I tossed him my keys. He opened it up, and dug in for modems and telephones. I went for my terminal.
We carried our burdens down the half-dozen steps into the dispatch office, Biff following.
The old desks and chairs were still where they had been, albeit a little dusty. Shelley went to the dispatch desk, put down her terminal, then reached into Carolyn's big purse and produced the small radio -- about the size of a car's CB -- and beg an hooking it up to the antenna.
As I put my terminal on my old desk, Jimmy began hooking up two phones and a modem on Shelley's desk.
"This one's the phone-phone," he was telling her. "This one's the modem."
I helped myself to the remaining pile, began setting up what I could. Let's see... Terminal into modem, phone into modem, modem into....
"Jimmy. Which outlet is which?"
"Doesn't matter. Just as long as you don't plug the modem into the eight-hundred line. That might tend to annoy the installers."
I nodded, looking at the outlets, remembering. The top one was the eight-hundred number. I plugged the two phones in, lifted the handset of the one on the modem. There was a dial tone.
"Ma Bell works pretty slow," I said. "These lines should've been dead weeks ago."
"Wait a minute!" muttered Biff. "Who was supposed to be responsible for getting them shut off?"
Jimmy shook his head. "You said you were going to, Biff. Listen, Seth, check the dipswitches before you try to dial that one out. One and three should be up, the others down."
I looked. All six dipswitches were down. I opened the small blade on my Swiss officer's knife, and flipped one and three.
"Okay, Jimmy. What's the number?"
I punched the numbers into the phone as he called them out. The phone rang once, and there was a click, and the piercing whine of an on-line modem. I flipped the switch on my modem, and the phone went silent. The terminal beeped to life.
I logged on, waiting several extra seconds while the modems chewed on the information.
"Three hundred Baud?" I asked Jimmy.
He shook his head. "Twelve hundred."
Shelley's terminal came up, and she logged on. "Holy sh--" She noticed Biff's rising eyebrow. "Uh, holy cow, is this thing slow! This is twelve hundred?"
Jimmy nodded. "Ninety-six hundred spoils you."
"Ugh," she said. "I guess so."
I nodded agreement.
Biff looked back and forth between us. "Granted it's not the Ritz, people, but... It does work, yes?"
Shelley and I looked at each other for a long moment.
"It'll get us through the day, I guess," Shelley said.
I nodded glum agreement.
"All right." Biff looked back and forth between us for a moment. Shelley had begun arranging the paperwork on her desk, and I followed suit.
Biff started for the door, then stopped, turned around. Jimmy, following close behind, nearly collided with him.
"And listen," said Biff. "I want you both to know that both the company, and myself, personally, really very much appreciate your staying on to carry us through this incident, when the rest of the staff has gone home. It's really very much appreci ated by all concerned."
He turned and walked up the steps. Jimmy waited for the door to close. "Not enough to give you bonuses or anything," he said in a savagely accurate impression of Biff's voice. "But we appreciate it."
I smiled, lifted a hand. "Later, Jimmy."
"Yeah. Take it easy, guys."
Jimmy turned and trotted up the steps. I looked over at Shelley. "Alone at last."
Shelley closed her eyes, shook her head. "I may yak!"
"Yeah, but why not do a radio check instead?"
Shelley nodded. "Good point." She reached for the mike. "KMGG-477, Base to 906, do you copy?"
"Yeah, base," came Goeff Coughlin's deep voice. "906 copies. What do you need?"
"Just a radio check, 906. What's your 20?"
"In the parking lot of the new building, watching all the pretty police lights."
"Who's got our supplies of boxes?"
"Uh, that'd be 911, 913, and, uh, what the hell's Max's number? 903?"
Shelley laughed. "Ah, yeah, Goeff. That's a ten-four. I'll try talking to them next. Base clear with 906, Base to 903, do you copy?"
The phones rang, and I grabbed the one on my desk. "Middlesex Cable."
"Yeah, hi, Seth," came the voice of one of my installers. "This is Daryl, calling a job in."
I punched buttons on the computer, preparing to assign converter boxes and activate the account. "Okay, Daryl," I said. "Work order number?"
He rattled off the five digits, and we started the process of exchanging names and numbers to insure that the account I was working with and the one he was standing in were one and the same.
"Okay," I finally said, perhaps two minutes later. "The account should be activating any minute now. Just waiting for the computer to catch up with me."
"Geez, Seth, what's taking so long? Is it broke or somethin'?"
"No, I'm working from the old building, with a modem. That slows down the process."
"Yeah? What're you doing there?"
"Would you believe, hiding from a bomb threat?"
"Wow! No shit?"
"You've got it." The computer beeped at me. "Okay, the box should be up now, Daryl."
"Yeah? Okay, lemme run by the pay channels." There was a moment's pause. "Yeah. He's up an' runnin'. Bomb threat, huh? Wow. Okay, I'm on my way to Clapboardtree Street. I'll call you from there."
"Okay, Daryl, take care." I hung up the phone, started filling in my paperwork, showing which job he'd just completed, what he'd done there, where he was headed.
"This modem crap slowing you down much?" Shelley asked.
"Yeah." I finished filling in the serial number of the box Daryl'd just installed, and pushed the converter log to one side. "You?
She shuddered theatrically. "Man, I hate this! This is like trying to drive the Indy Five-Hundred in a go-cart!"
The phones rang again, and I picked up.
"Yeah, hi," said the voice of Chuck Bilodeau, service tech 911, "This is Chuck, with a box change."
"Hang tight a moment, Chuck," I said, and transfered the call to Shelley.
"Thanks, Seth," she said, and picked it up.
The phone rang again almost immediately, and I grabbed it. It was Max, another box change. Shelley was still on with Chuck, so I took his numbers, my fingers racing over the balky computer.
"Okay, Seth, thanks a lot," he said, starting to hang up.
"Woah, there, Podnuh!" I said. Max came from Texas, and none of us would let him forget it. "Where you headed?"
"Uh... Woodbine Ave."
"Okay, hang in a sec." I looked over at Shelley. "You got anything for Max?"
She shook her head, furiously scribbling numbers from Chuck on her note-pad.
"Okay, Max, you're all set."
We went on like that for an hour or so, one call after another, after another. I've always given Shelley this: she was a pro, and she worked like one. As badly as we got along otherwise, we made a hell of a team.
Then, as happens inexplicably on the worst of days, we hit a few moments of blessed inactivity. We sat for a moment in almost stunned silence, staring at phones that -- for the moment, at least -- were uncharacteristically silent.
"Can't last, you know," said Shelley.
"Let's just love it while it's here," I responded.
"Nah," said Shelley, with a little half-smile. "When I love something, it leaves."
We smiled at each other for a silent moment, and I think her thoughts were much the same as mine: Why couldn't it always be like this? She liked the ongoing state of warfare -- "The perpetual roar of musketry," as she'd once, delightfully, called it -- no better than I did. Why couldn't our personal moments always be this congenial, this comradely.
"Well, Shelley," I finally said, "in that case, you know I'll never leave you."
Shelley laughed, crumpled up a blank sheet of paper, and threw it at me.
Can't last, you know, I told myself, sadly. Just love it while it's here.
I stood up and stretched, my hands high above my head, my back arched, looking into the long strips of the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling.
"Good idea," said Shelley. She stood, stretched, bent, her pose mirroring mine. The plaid material of her blouse stretched taut over her splendid, smallish breasts.
She caught my gaze and straightened, crossing her arms and glaring at me. "You're a pig, Seth!"
"Go to hell!" I snapped. She had a point, of course. That's probably why I got so mad. "I'm male. I'm straight. I like breasts. Sue me."
"Jesus Christ, Seth! Don't be a bastard all your life!"
"Oh, go rent a sense of humor, will you?"
And that's when it happened.
This is what I saw. I'm reliably told that it must be my imagination, coloring the memory with details that did not exist. that I did not, could not have, seen it. Okay. I plead Nolo Contendere.
But this is what I saw:
For a moment, a photo-flashbulb fraction of a second, less than a heartbeat or the blink of an eye, the wall beyond Shelley was translucent, backlit by a monstrously bright flash. I saw the sillhouettes of supporting beams, electrical and telephon e cables, water pipes, of Shelley's body within the momentary diaphony of her clothes.
The wall was suddenly opaque again, bulging in toward us like a design drawn on an inflating balloon, for another tiny fraction of a second.
Then there was a noise, a monstrous CRACK!, the sound of God breaking a pencil a hundred light-years long, and I felt an impact like a dead-on punch from an eight-foot fist, and there was heat and smoke and dust and my ea rs ringing, and then, mercifully, blackness.
God damn Stealth Cable!
Somebody should have thought of it earlier. It's easy enough, I guess, in hindsight.
In all our rush of plans and preparations, we assumed that Teddy Janvier would know where we were... But, why would he?
The move had been planned in general terms for more than a year, but the actual date was announced only two weeks beforehand. Sue had already left him by then, and they weren't talking. And Biff's policy -- Stealth Cable -- went a long wa y toward insuring that he wouldn't find out any other way.
I could imagine him, the night before, breaking into the basement file room with his home-made bomb. An empty building is an empty building: who can tell, in the dark, if the people left an hour ago or a month ago?
So he'd set a bomb in the old building, never knowing we weren't there anymore.
By that night, he'd pretty certainly find out.
In the movies, and in fiction, coming to is a slow, painful process, with vision and memory and understanding filtering back slowly. With me it was sudden, like switching on a light: One moment, the world went dark in a shattering instant of catac lysm; the next, I was lying on my back, coughing and squinting into the dim light of a caved-in room, putting two and two together, and damning Stealth Cable.
I didn't feel good: it was as if I'd been beaten all over, with a club. I sat up slowly, and that didn't feel very nice, either, but neither was it catastrophic. My ears were ringing like hell, but I could hear a little: the sounds of my own breat h, mainly. The clunk! of a light-switch, incongruously dangling from its power cord, as it swung against the wall.
The outside walls and the ceiling had caved in completely. From somewhere within that pile of rubble shone the bright white light of the emergency lanterns. None of the yellowish purity of daylight. There was a chamber maybe five-foot-six at its h ighest point, where I was, but more like three feet high at the far end of the room. Shelley's desk had pretty much disappeared under the falling debris. So, for that matter, had mine. The place stank of smoke and gunpowder and ozone.
Where was she?
I got to my knees, then up into a crouch, and moved over toward where she should be.
"Shelley?" My voice sounded hoarse and strange in my ears.
I heard a moaning sound behind me, and turned. Shelley was there, lying more-or-less prone, beginning to push herself up on her knees.
"Oh, God damn," she was saying. "Oh, God damn."
She got one foot under her, reached for the bare steel of a support beam to pull herself to her feet.
"Oh, God damn," she said again, and her fingers closed around the edge of the beam, and she screamed. The emergency light shining out of the debris dimmed by about half.
Her eyes widened and bulged, and her hair waved back and forth rhythmically, as if a company of miniaturized soldiers were marching a parade drill in her scalp. Her back arched and her nipples erected, and her clenched right fist made fast, tight circles at the end of a rigidly outstretched arm. Smoke seeped from around the left hand, clutching white-knuckle-tight to the beam.
"Shelley!" I yelled.
She made a gurgling sound, her eyes staring at nothing.
I looked around frantically, saw a piece of cloth -- Shelley's sweater, I think -- prutruding from the rubble, and I grabbed it and wrapped my hands in it. I stumbled over, grabbed her right hand through the sweater. I could feel the voltage tingl ing through the cloth.
"Shelley!" I screamed again, and pulled, as hard as I could. There was a moment's resistance, fierce, terrible, as her fingers slid along the metal. So strong, she was. So very strong.
Then she was away, and I overbalanced from the lack of resistance, and we fell to the floor in a heap.
"Jesus Christ, Shelley," I mumbled, pushing her off me. "That was bad. God damn it, girl."
She fell away from me like a sack of grain, and I stared down at her, alarmed.
"Shelley," I said. "Shelley?" I shook her. She shifted slackly, disjointed, limp in my hands. "Shelley!"
My hand scrabbled to her neck, feeling for the firm, steady pulse of the carotid. Nothing. I laid her flat on the floor, pressed an ear to her chest. Nothing.
"Shelley!" I yelled at her. "Shelley!"
"God damn it!" It had been three years since I'd taken the CPR course at the Fort Devens Red Cross. I thought I remembered it all, but did I? And, for that matter, I was damned sure my certification had lapsed. But if I did nothing, she was dead: it wasn't like I could do much harm.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, remembering, then went to work. I tilted her head back, cleared the airway, got her arms out of the way.
While I was doing that, I inanely yelled "Go get some help!" over my shoulder. They teach you that in the CPR course, and it came out almost reflexively.
I took a handful of material from each collar in my hand, and pulled her blouse open. I found the Xyphoid Process, but her bra interfered with measuring two finger-widths up, so grabbed the material of each cup, where they joined over her breastbo ne.
I paused, involuntarily shying away from the invasiveness of it, then shook my head. Survival first.
"Pink or brown, Shelley," I murmured, and pulled the bra apart. When you train, it's on the sexless, characterless "Rescussin-Annie" dummy. They tell you about how your back will ache, and the bruises that'll form on the victim's chest. But there are some things they just can't tell you.
I knew that I had to be careful not to puncture her liver. I didn't know that the round shapeliness of her breasts and the pertness of her small pink nipples would touch and excite me. I didn't know my heart would catch in my throat and tears woul d brim in my eyes with the terror and sadness that she was really, really dead.
I closed my eyes again, a heartbeat, an eternity, gathering my thoughts and my will. Fifteen and two, the Red Cross instructor in the back of my head told me. Fifteen compressions, two breaths, don't waste time.
I opened my eyes again, put my finger on the Xyphoid Process, the little pointy extrusion at the end of the breastbone. I measured two finger-widths up, placed the heel of my right hand against the second finger, then put my left hand on my right, pulling my own palm back, resting the weight on the heel of the hand.
I began the compressions, rapidly counting aloud, one to fifteen, then went to her head, blew two breaths into her open mouth, watched her chest rise and fall with the borrowed breath. Her mouth was slack against mine. I fought to ignore the intim ate sensation of her lips under mine. I guess I pretty much succeeded.
Compressions. "One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine- ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen-fourteen-fifteen!"
Check for a pulse while I breath.
"Come on, Shelley, come on, please," I gasped, as I went into the compressions again.
Compressions. Breaths. Check. Nothing.
Compressions. Breaths. Check. Nothing.
I stretched my arms, stared down at the slack, expressionless face.
"Now?!?" I screamed at her, bending suddenly, savagely, back into the compressions. "You're going to give up now? You bitch! You miserable, cowardly, chickenshit, fucking bitch!!!"
Breaths. Check. Nothing.
"You've fought me every minute of every day since I've got here, God damn you!" The words came in rhythmic gasps, with the pump and flex of my body over hers. My mind automatically counted the fifteen compressions. "You're not going to stop now!"
Breaths. Check. Nothing.
Compressions. "You self-indulgent little bitch! Don't you fucking die here, Goddammit! You're going to fucking live!"
Breaths, check, nothing.
I couldn't keep up the screaming. My back hurt, and my arms hurt, and my lungs burned, and my throat was getting sore. But I couldn't shut up, either. "I know you're in there, Goddammit," I rasped, pumping at her breastbone. The bruise was forming nicely; I no longer needed to measure with my fingers to find the spot to put my hand. "I know you're listening! Well, listen up, Shelley. I've got some things to say to you."
Breaths, check, nothing.
I leaned into the compressions. CPR is orders of magnitude less efficient at oxygenating and moving the blood than the simple lub-dub miracle of a beating heart. I'd have to work harder and harder to keep from falling too far behind.
"Who do you think you are?" I snarled. "Always giving me shit about my sense of humor! 'You always cross the line, Seth! How many times do I have to tell you? You're always going over the line!'"
Breaths, check, nothing.
"Well, I've got news for you, you lowlife bitch!" I screamed at her again, surprised at my own rage: "You don't DRAW the fucking line!" I counted the last few compressions silently.
Breaths, check, nothing.
"You've got balls the size of planetoids, lecturing me about my conduct, Goddammit! You're fucking around with a guy with a wife and two kids! Don't you know what you're doing to them, to her... and to yourself? You're diminishing yourself in ways you don't even begin to comprehend!"
I breathed into her mouth. Her eyes made no reply.
I started pumping again. Amazingly, my body was finding the rhythm, and falling into it almost easily. I'd pay for it later,I knew, but, now, now, the ebb-and-press motion fell into place like the simple act of walking. "Can't you see an inch in front of your face? Oh, God, Shelley! What are you going to think of yourself when you're thirty"
Breaths, check, nothing.
"For Christ's sake, Shelley." I leaned into it, shoving the blood through her system. "What do you think you're going to get out of it? A lover you can never trust! What the hell kind of a relationship is that? You can't really be looking for a st iff dick and nothing more! No one is!"
Breaths, check, nothing.
Pump, pump, pump. "You've got so much going for you, Goddammit! What ever happened to you to make you value yourself so little that you think all you have to offer a man is between your legs?"
Breaths, check, nothing.
"It started with L.A., didn't it? You really loved that guy." I'd heard her tell the story. He'd been into dope, and she'd tried to save him. Eventually, he'd killed someone, in a DUI accident. He was on trial, facing prison, more in need of love and support than he'd ever been in his life, facing the consequences of his actions for the first time.
And Shelley had turned tail and run, in over her head, and frightened.
"You never did forgive yourself for that one, did you, Shelley?" I asked her, pumping away at her chest. "That's the problem with running away, you see. You can never stop running, because you're always chased by the questions. What if I'd sta yed and fought and tried for just one more day? But you've never been able to do that, have you? Always too scared to really love -- to really live!"
Breaths, check, nothing. My arms and back and sides were on fire, but the rhythm, the rhythm carried me on. My words were gasps, spoken on the intake as well as the out.
The rage overtook me again as I went back to her chest.
"Well, that's just fine, Goddammit! You can give up if you want to! I won't! Not now, not ever! Not while there's a breath in my body! You just lie there like a lump of fucking meat if you want to, you cowardly little bitch! Lie there and die, and I'll still keep on fighting!"
My mouth found hers automatically. My hands resumed their rhythmic pressure at her chest.
"You go ahead and lie there! Keep on running away! Keep on giving up on yourself! Throw yourself away one last time! But you won't see me stop fighting for you, you self-centered, self- important little bitch! So you just go ahead and die, and pro ve how brave you are! Give up, you little bitch! Go down without a fight! Live or die, bitch! Live, if you've got the guts! Or die! And prove that I was right all along!"
I leaned over her face, blew into her mouth, and felt some movement in her lips.
My hand found the hollow at the side of her throat. The carotid pulse fluttered under my hand.
"Shelley!" The pulse faltered for a moment, then strengthened again, faster, harder, more certain. "Shelley!"
Her body spasmed, and I turned her sideways. The first thing nine out of ten cardiac-arrest victims do once under their own power again is vomit.
"Oh, my God, Shelley!" The spasm passed, and I gathered her in my arms. There's a world of difference between an unconscious body and a dead one. Tears streamed down my face. I held her tight, kissed her forhead. "Oh, my God!"
I pulled her across the floor, away from the hot-wired beam, and sat down, resting my back against the remains of my desk, Shelley's head in my lap. I pulled her ruined blouse closed, and sat there, stroking her hair, and crying with joy.
We were still like that, perhaps a half-hour later, when the lights went out.
I sat for awhile, in the total darkness, only the feeling of Shelley's hair under my fingers to tell me I wasn't all alone in the world.
Then I heard the clanging. It was a couple of minutes before I realized it was rhythmic. Morse code? Maybe. I only know the usual three letters of it. It took another moment for the Aha! to strike.
I felt around till I came upon an appropriate piece of metal and swung it against the desk. Thrice fast, thrice slow, thrice fast. S.O.S. The other clang stopped, so I did it again. Then once more.
The other clang came back, a short pair, and I settled back to wait again. Every now and then, there'd be a clang, and I'd answer with my one little phrase of Morse.
After a while, I began to hear a shifting in the rubble around us, scattered falls of pebbles here and dust there.
The end, when it came, was sudden.
There was a small whirring sound, and a circle of light about the size of a quarter appeared. A flexible black tube snaked down through it, and twisted oddly. At its end was a light source of some sort and a tiny lens. I quickly realized it was a miniature remote camera of some sort, and smiled and waved at it, and pointed down at Shelley. The camera withdrew.
There was a louder buzzing sound, and I saw the teeth of a sawblade cut a circle about the size of a manhole in the ceiling about six feet to our left. The circle fell in with a crash that raised a lot of dust, and a pair of feet dangled into the hole and dropped.
Goeff Coughlin ducked down and moved toward us, his left hand checking the first aid kit on his belt. I sat, my hand still absently stroking Shelley's hair.
"You all right?" Goeff asked.
"Yeah, I think so. Shelley needs a hospital. She got zapped on a hot wire. Her heart stopped. I performed CPR until it got going again. Now, I think she's just sleeping."
"Yeah, well..." Goeff reached for the first aid kit, drew out a capsule of smelling salts, broke it under her nose.
Shelley's reaction was immediate. She drew her head back, her eyes blinking muzzily, and moaned, almost inaudibly. She looked like a little girl, waking up with a head cold.
Her eyes focused on me. I smiled down at her, stroking her hair. Her features crumpled into the weak distaste of a sickly eight-year-old, looking at lima beans. She pulled weakly away.
"Oooh," she murmured, so quietly I could hardly hear her. "What are you doing? Don' do that... Go 'way..."
I looked up at Goeff, and he nodded, and reached down, and scooped her up in his strong arms, and carried her back to the manhole. I climbed stiffly to a crouch and followed him, out through the hole, into the world of sunlight.
If this were just a little story, I'd probably end up by telling you how Shelley straightened out her head, stopped seeing Goeff, and fell madly in love with me -- or at least took me to bed once, out of gratitude.
But this isn't just a story. This is my life, and what really happened was like this:
Shelley cut down to part-time hours about three months after that to go back to school full time at a small local college. She and Goeff continued to see each other. They still do. It still bothers me.
Jimmy Hewlett quit Middlesex Cable shortly thereafter. He threw in with a couple of hardware guys to form their own company. They make some sort of Cable-TV operated video game system.
Teddy Janvier was arrested almost immediately, and convicted with ease. Biff attempted to have him prosecuted under federal anti-terrorist statutes.
The bitterly vengefull zeal with which Biff pursued every course of action against Janvier succeeded, in the main, in thoroughly repulsing Suzanne, who dumped him shortly thereafter.
Nothing much happened to me, I guess. I was stiff and sore for about a week, then went back to work. Shelley and I squabbled on occasion, but nothing very much. For all that her behaviour still bothered me, I found it made me more sad than angry, and found that I could no longer find the rage and bitterness inside me.
I never found out how much she remembers of what I said to her -- if any of it. I've never broached the subject. Neither has she. I don't think either of us ever will.
But for all that it's unspoken, I can't help knowing that there's something there. You don't start a person's heart with your own hands, and walk away unchanged, any more than you can experience death itself and be unaltered by it.
When we squabble it's just words and superficialities, and I have no real fire for it. If you choose to call it wishful thinking when I say I sense the same in Shelley, then do so.
All I know is that nothing is different and everything's changed since my conversation with Shelley.