by M.D. Bloemker
(previously published in Crazy Quilt #1)
Heíd snapped open the second deadbolt before it occurred to him what he was doing ó answering the door. The shock was enough to paralyze him with his hand inches from the last lock.
In Edgar Benedekís bohemian, splendidly unstructured life, there were few absolutes, but one of the most inviolable of those few was that he never answered his front door if he werenít expecting company, and even then not without a long, hard look through the peephole.
It was too late to pretend he wasnít home. The noise that his heavy-duty deadbolt locks made when sprung open could be heard three floors away in either direction. He settled for damage control, leaving forward to squint out the peephole.
This time shock got the third lock sprung and the door yanked open so fast that his visitor flinched back with a startled gasp.
"Dr. Moorhouse?" Benedek exclaimed, his voice a full octave higher than usual.
The woman composed herself, acknowledging him with a curt nod. "Benedek."
His first attempt to speak ended in an embarrassing squawk. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "What are you doing hó in town?"
"May I come in?"
He blinked once, twice, before remembering what the answer was. "Yeah, sure, sure, come in, " he stammered, stepping back to gesture her inside.
"I apologize for dropping in on you like this," she began as he fumbled the door locks closed.
"Thatís, uh ... okay. I, uh ... I ... thatís okay. Uh ... Jonathan isnít with you?"
"No, I came alone. I need to speak with you on a matter of some importance."
"You ... need to ó" He shook himself to get past the worst of his confusion. "I canít wait to hear this. Sit down, kick back. Can I get you something? Juice, pale ale...?"
"Thank you, no." She seated herself primly on the sofa. "My time here is brief, so Iíll come directly to the point. Iím concerned about the future of the Paranormal Research Unit. As you know, Iíve invested a great deal of my time and effort over the past year to establish the Unit as a reputable resource for the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. And I have and will continue to do everything in my power to reach that goal. But even that may not be enough anymore."
A coldness pricked nerve endings all over his body as he eased down into a chair near the sofa. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that my good intentions alone will not guarantee the Unitís success. Itís that realization thatís brought me to you."
"This ought to be easy to guess," he said slowly. "Iím not scientific enough for you, am I? As long as Iím associated with the Unit, the only respect itís going to get is from people who chow down at burger joints in Wisconsin with Elvis. Thatís what youíve come here to tell me, right?"
"In part," she admitted reluctantly.
"And the other part is that you want me to back out gracefully and make Jonathan think it was all my own idea, right?" he continued, bristling.
"Quite the contrary," she told him quietly.
He squinted at her, thoroughly confused. "You donít want me out?"
"I will admit that I had serious reservations about your participation in the Unitís investigations at first, but...." She drew a deep breath. "Letís just say that Iíve just recently come to a rather startling realization."
"That you and I have much more in common that I was prepared to ... comfortably admit."
"You?" he echoed, eyes wide. "And ... me?"
"Neither of us is content to accept that there exist questions which have no answers," she said earnestly. "Certainly our approaches are different, even ó dare I say ó diametrically opposed. But our ultimate goal is the same. We want the answers and we wonít rest until we get them."
"So what youíre saying is that you want me to stay with the Unit because I think like you do?"
She hesitated, clearly uneasy with any statement that compared her thought processes with his. But at length she nodded agreement. "I happen to know that most of the cases that you and Jonathan brought to a successful conclusion were due entirely to your insistence on continuing past the point where most people would have considered the matter closed. I donít mean to belittle Jonathanís role, heís very good at what he does, whether or not he cares to admit it. But I donít foresee a time when he will ever achieve the level of commitment necessary to realize the Unitís full potential."
"But you think ... I will," he said in vague disbelief.
"Yes. But not until you make ... one more commitment."
Narrow-eyed, he watched as she dug into her small purse and removed a folded piece of paper. Taking it from her, he shook it open and began to read.
A full two minutes later, his trembling fingers finally lost their grip, sending the sheet of paper to his knees, where he continued to stare at it in astonishment.
"This is a joke, isnít it?" he gasped when he finally found enough breath to speak.
She pressed her lips together irritably. "Benedek, I do believe this is the first time youíve ever credited me with a sense of humor. And quite inappropriately, I might add."
He stared at her, mouth still slack with surprise. "This isnít a joke?"
"Iíve never been more serious in my life."
His eyes went back to the paper. "This has got to be a joke."
She sighed heavily. "Benedek...."
"Then what is it? A bribe? You think this is whatís going to keep me with the Unit?"
"Itís what will help you guide the Unit to the position of respect that it deserves in the scientific community."
"Well, maybe I like the Unit the way it is." Agitated, he jumped to his feet and began to pace the room. "Have you thought about that? Iíve been doing just fine. Weíve been doing just fine. Who says things need to change?"
She inclined her head, studying him carefully. "So you believe that Iím mistaken in thinking that you are equal to the challenge?"
"I believe...." He stopped, gulped hard, and sat down again. "I believe Iím dreaming all this. Look, you and I both know that most of the time, Jonathanís only driving motivation is to prove me wrong. This...." He shook his head and rapped the sheet of paper with the back of his hand. "This is going to change all that."
"I think youíre judging him too harshly," she said with a hint of a smile. "True enough, in the beginning, I believe he thought of you as nothing more than an affront to his ego. But surely you must know thatís not been true for a very long time."
He rubbed his forehead, hopelessly confused. "I had no idea," he finally managed to stammer.
"That Jonathan has come to respect you as an equal?"
"No." He forced his gaze to meet hers. "That you did."
She smiled, unexpectedly warm. "So youíll accept my challenge?"
He stared at the paper again for a long moment before answering. "I would have to be a fool not to," he said at length.
She released a long breath, and for some reason Benedek felt warmed by the relief that seemed to light her face. "Thereís just one more thing I need to tell you before I go...."
"Go? You just got here!"
"There are some important documents pertaining to the future direction of the Unit," she continued, gaining her feet. "I meant to make Jonathan aware of their existence before I left the office, but Iím not sure the message reached him. Tell him to look for a blue envelope in the top left hand drawer of my desk."
"Wait, wait. Why are you telling me this? We can just call Liz from hó whoa, are you okay?"
She nodded, waving off the hand heíd reached out to her when she seemed to sway, on the verge of fainting. "Iím just a bit tired," she said in a voice that proved her words.
"Maybe you better sit down until you feel better...."
"No, no, Iíll be fine. I really must be going, Iím ... quite late as it is."
"Well, let me get you some water then. Just sit right there and Iíll be right back."
Her voice calling his name stopped him at the kitchen door. He turned back to see her staring at him with an odd but inscrutable expression on her face. "Thank you," she said softly.
He gave her a quick, confused smile before continuing into the kitchen. It took him less than fifteen seconds to locate a clean glass and fill it with water. Long enough, he discovered upon his return to the living room, for Dr. Moorhouse to have vanished.
A check of the bedroom, bathroom, even his hall closet turned up no trace. It wasnít until he went back to the living room that a strange feeling started building in his chest. His steps slowed under its increasing weight, and it took him an uncomfortably long time to approach the front door, let alone lift his eyes to inspect the deadbolts.
All locked from the inside.
Seconds, maybe minutes, maybe hours later, he stumbled back, mentally forcing himself out of the paralysis of denial and toward the telephone. But he froze again with his hand nearly touching the receiver. There was no point. No one he could call would be able to tell him anything more than he already knew, so why bother?
But he had to do something. If not this, then what?
His hand came down, missing the phone by inches to land on his wallet as his other hand snatched up his jacket from the back of a chair.
There were several destinations he could have given the cab driver, and it wasnít until Benny was faced with the manís impatiently arched eyebrow that he gave it any thought. But even as the words, "Georgetown Institute," came from his mouth, he realized that there was no decision to make after all. Dr. Moorhouse had told him where to go.
Barely hearing the cabbyís gasp and profuse thanks for a tip that was nearly three times the fare, Benny tread a well-worn path: up the front steps, halfway down the main corridor, ignore the ancient elevator to take the fire stairs two at a time to the third floor, turn left, through the frosted glass door marked "Anthropology Department," left again. He passed the office of the person he was seeking without a glance back, and instead turned another corner, stopping before a door that was elegantly inscribed, "Dr. Juliana Moorhouse."
The outer office was unoccupied, though Benny noted in passing that the secretaryís desk was uncharacteristically cluttered with unfiled papers and folders, as if its owner had left unexpectedly. The door to the inner office was ajar, and he approached quietly, pushing the door aside with his hand, but staying in the doorway to peer inside the room.
"Iím not home," he offered after a moment.
Startled, Jonathan MacKensie fumbled the phone receiver, finally getting it back onto its cradle on the third try.
"Sorry, didnít mean to scare you," Benny said, closing the door behind him before approaching the desk.
Jonathan stared at him, his fingers white on the phone receiver as though holding it down kept him from falling over. "What are you ó how did you...?"
"Take it easy, take it easy," Benny soothed, pulling up a visitorís chair close to the desk. "Come on, breathe. Deep breaths, yeah, thatís it."
"Iím fine," Jonathan snapped, regaining his composure with a fair amount of the irritation he always displayed in response to Bennyís patronizing attempts to calm him. He turned away, ostensibly to flip through a pile of folders on the desk.
Benny gave him a minute before deciding that whatever Jonathan wanted to say was getting stuck somewhere underneath his pride. "So," he began casually. "Did you give Liz the rest of the day off? I imagine sheís pretty upset."
"I told her Iíd take care of ... things." His progress through the folders slowed to a halt. "I havenít called anyone yet," he said after a long moment spent staring at the desktop in confusion. "How did you find out?"
Benny opened his mouth, considered, then closed his mouth for another long moment of consideration. "Iím going to tell you something Iíve never told you before."
"That Iím not going to answer that question until Iím sure youíre ready to hear it. So ... tell me what happened."
It took Jonathan a long time before he could make a coherent sound, and only after he finally gave up pretending there was anything of importance on the desk with which to occupy himself. Rising to his feet, he began a slow pace of the office.
"She was fine this morning. At least, thatís what she said. I thought she looked a little tired, but she nearly took my head off when I mentioned it." He paused at a wall of photographs, his expression becoming pinched and wan. "I was with her, here, all morning. Then she sent me back to my office for the Fartham and Cypress Falls case files. It was near lunch, I decided to return a few telephone calls.... I should have stayed with her. If Iíd been here when she...."
"What happened?" Benny prompted firmly, determined to forestall the direction he sensed Jonathan was headed.
"We were working on the new prospectus for the Unit. She was determined to persuade the Institute to give us official recognition, but it seems that the Board had a few serious reservations about the Unitís ... organizational structure." A slight movement would have been a glance back at Benny if Jonathan had had the courage to move at that point. "She told me that sheíd been working with her lawyer on a ... a contingency plan of sorts, something that would answer all of the Boardís objections. But she didnít want to discuss specifics with me until she was sure that this plan of hers would work."
Benny leaned forward in his chair, fixing an intense look at the back of Jonathanís head. "So, you, uh ... donít have any idea what her plan was?"
"What would it matter if I did?" Jonathan sighed, shook his head and made his way back to the desk, easing down in the chair. "The Unit is finished. The Board wonít even approve us for office supplies now."
"Your dreams come true, eh?" Benny said softly.
Jonathanís head snapped up, and Benny calmly met his surprisingly angry stare. "Thatís a hell of a thing to say."
"Thank you. But is it true?"
Anger faded, replaced by uncertainty and not a little discomfort. "I ... honestly donít know." His attention went back to the stack of folders on the desk. "Itís funny, but ... ever since I got back from the hospital, Iíve been sitting here thinking about Cypress Falls."
"That little kid really liked you."
"Probably because I was the first adult who talked to him in a normal tone of voice," Jonathan said, lost in the memory. "He was convinced that everything that was happening was his fault."
"Until you proved that it wasnít."
Jonathan gave him a sharp, but tolerant look. "No help from you."
"Hey, my way made a better story," Benny protested unapologetically. "But in the long run ... your way got an innocent kid off the hook." He leaned forward again, eyes narrowed. "And what about Indian Bend? For twenty years, the whole town was convinced that guy was a murderer until you came up with the evidence to clear him."
Jonathan shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the memory. "Iím still not convinced that I didnít dream the whole thing."
"And Iím convinced you got the real story from the ghost of the murder victim herself, but thatís not the point. The point is...." He paused, lowering his voice for dramatic effect. "The point is, you made a difference."
"Terrace Hills," Jonathan said after a moment of silence spent staring at the folders. "Parkersville. Hagerstown."
Benny inclined his head, mock smugness. "Yeah, Iím pretty good too, arenít I?"
Jonathan straightened, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "I just got back from the hospital twenty minutes ago. I havenít called anyone yet. Did Liz call you?"
Shaking his head, Benny got to his feet and made his way to the side of the desk as he said, "To tell you the truth, Jon-boy, I wasnít sure until just a few minutes ago why I came here. I think Dr. M was trying to get you to admit that you really did want to keep the Unit going, and she never got a chance to get it out of you. So now itís up to me, I guess. What do you say?"
Baffled, Jonathan squinted up at him. "Without Dr. Moorhouse...."
Benny raised a hand to stop him. "Just yes or no."
The decision took a long time, marked by fast, intense facial expression changes that finally settled into a blank, inscrutable mask as he stared down at his hand, splayed across the top of the case files. "She wouldnít want me to give up," he said finally.
"Right sentiment, wrong answer," Benny chided gently.
It took only a moment more, heralded by a hard swallow and a steeling intake of air. "I donít want to give up."
"There you go," Benny grinned, surreptitiously sliding out the side drawer to slip his hand in.
"But what does it matter?" Jonathan sighed. "The problems are still the same. I have no idea what her contingency plan was, and even if we could talk to her lawyer...."
He flinched back as a bundle of papers landed on the desk before him. His half-formed question was met with a gesture from Benny to unfold the documents, jacketed in legal blue covers.
Benny slipped back into his chair as Jonathan skimmed the pages, noting that the look of growing astonishment on the manís face probably mirrored the look on his own face only hours earlier when heíd read the same thing.
"This ... this is...."
"A full scholarship," Benny told him evenly. "In my name. With only three restrictions. One, that I maintain a 3.0 average. Two, that I agree to work toward a doctorate. Three, that I apply for and receive all advanced degrees right here at Georgetown Institute."
Jonathan stared at him, agape. "When did you two plan this?"
Benny held up his hands. "It was all her idea, buds. First I heard about it was this morning."
"This morning?" Thoroughly confused, Jonathan shook his head. "But I was with her ... she didnít call anyone...."
"She showed up on my doorstep. In New York. Around, oh ... eleven forty-five."
"Elevó" His expression changed suddenly. "You...youíre saying she...."
"I think she wanted to make sure one of us knew about this," Benny said quietly.
The expected denial didnít come. Instead, Jonathan stared at a far wall, his jaw working angrily. "This isnít very funny."
"Well, thatís good, because itís not a joke."
"You expect me to believe that she would.... Why? Why would she...?"
"Go to me instead of you?" He could tell from Jonathanís flinch that heíd hit the mark. "Come on, Jonny, think about it. She had to make sure this deal was okay with me, because if I turned it down, that pack of legal documents becomes landfill. And letís face it ó if she had to pick someone, itís got to be the one whoís gonna believe what heís seeing."
"But you expect me to believe that she...." He gave up with a sigh, unable to bring himself to say it.
But Benny saw enough in the manís eyes to make him confident enough to venture, "Oh, I donít expect you to believe it. But something tells me you do."
Instead of answering, Jonathan picked up the bundle of papers again. "Sheís guaranteed funding for the Unit," he discovered. "A trust fund set up by her estate, in perpetuity, with a matching yearly grant to the alumni fund. The Board can provide supplementary funding, but never more than half that of the yearly trust fund payment." He looked up, stunned. "Do you know what that means?"
"They canít shut us down and they canít fire us?" Benny guessed.
"As long as you meet the provisions of the scholarship agreement ó yes. Thatís exactly what it means."
"Thatís our gal," Benny nodded. "Sheís thought of everything."
A long silence ensued, during which Benny grew sure that Jonathanís attention was no longer on the document before him. Finally, in a quiet, strained voice, Jonathan asked, "You saw her?"
"Sitting right in my living room, buds, and just as Dr. Moorhouse-ish as ever."
"How ... how did she look? What did she say?"
"Youíre saying that you believe me?"
"I donít want to," he admitted with difficulty, laying the legal documents aside. "But I think I must."
"She wasnít upset about, uh ... you know, at all. Just concerned about the Unit, about whether she ... we could keep it going. I donít think I realized until just now what a really big deal the Unit was to her."
"More so than even Iíd guessed," Jonathan agreed. He was silent a long moment, then looked up suddenly. "I couldnít have brought myself to go through her desk, and I doubt Liz could, either. Someone from the Board, perhaps. Someone who wouldnít understand the significance of these documents. Or even if they did, would recognize the fact that since you havenít signed them, they couldnít be used to assuage the Boardís objections to the Unitís ... organizational structure."
"Youíve got a point," Benny agreed. "Do you also have a pen?"
Jonathan offered him one from the desk, but as Benny took it, he noted uneasily, "This isnít exactly legal."
"So arrest me. Bless her soul, sheís got post-it notes telling me where to sign. This needs a witness, you know."
When Benny turned the document back to him, he took the pen but hesitated over the fine print, and in particular, the space containing Dr. Moorhouseís already-inscribed signature. "Iím supposed to sign this in the presence of all signatories."
"I donít think thatís a problem," Benny assured him solemnly.
Jonathanís reaction was a quick glance, but no objection. He slowly paged through the document one more time. Suddenly, he burst out into a chuckle.
"What, did I miss the cartoon page?" Benny sniffed, leaning forward.
"I was just thinking of you with a Ph.D."
"As a peer, you mean. Iíd have thought youíd be crying your eyes out."
Jonathanís smile faded as another thought overtook him. "When did this become important to me?"
In response, Benny tapped his finger against the top of the case files. "It always was, buds. You just stopped fighting it."
"Is that so? Well, then ó when did it stop being mere fodder for your journalistic hallucinations and become important to you?"
That stopped him, but only for a moment. "At about eleven-fifty this morning," he said with a smile.
Jonathanís mouth quirked ruefully. "Sheís gotten exactly what she wanted all along, hasnít she?"
"And did it after most people would have considered the party over," Benny added meaningfully. "But, ah, between you and me, I think we should make sure the lady gets the message, donít you?"
Jonathanís questioning look was answered by Bennyís extended hand. "Hey, the last thing I want is a follow-up call," Benny shrugged. "I need my beauty sleep."
Jonathan hesitated only a moment, then lifted his pen in a tacit request for Benny to hold his pose. He signed where required, giving his signature an extra flourish that mirrored the strange exhilaration and sense of purpose filling him, then set the pen aside. With a deep breath that effectively shut the door on old feelings and petty rivalries, and an exhale that accepted the new direction his life was about to take, he grasped Bennyís hand warmly. "It will be a pleasure working with you ... Doctor Benedek."
© M.D.Bloemker. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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