Authors: Janice Kaplan
“I’m here,” I said.
“Good. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t call anyone. Stay on the phone and do exactly what I tell you.”
“Why should I?”
She paused, just briefly. “You’re here. So you know why.”
lsa’s instructions were direct. Turn right. Turn left. Go straight. I followed the walkways and went by the music building. The gentle sounds of a violin drifted from an open window. Whoever scored the soundtrack of my life needed to add oboe and drums.
“Are you still there?” Elsa asked, her tone curt and controlled.
“Yes. Just passing a courtyard. A big landscaped lawn.”
“Dickson Court. Keep going and turn right at the bridge.”
“I don’t see a bridge,” I said anxiously.
She snorted. “It’s what we call it around here. Not exactly the Golden Gate. More like a road.”
Not a time to quibble over nouns. I turned on to the road.
“After the truck goes by, cross the street and head toward Murphy Hall,” she said.
A Verizon truck rumbled by. I suddenly realized Elsa could see me and was watching my every move. Maybe that meant Jimmy was nearby. I spun around, hoping against hope that I’d spot my baby.
Elsa, catching my abrupt move, misinterpreted.
“Don’t try to attract attention,” she said. “Play this straight or you’ll never…” She paused, too smart to make a threat over the phone.
“Is Jimmy with you?” I asked, more breathless than I intended.
“You’re almost at a building,” she said, ignoring me. “Go in the small entrance directly ahead.”
I did as told, then followed her instructions across a corridor, down a staircase, and through a metal door—which slammed loudly behind me. In the dim light, I tried to figure out where I could be. Low ceilings, hanging wires, an insistent humming sound.
, I suddenly realized. The mythical underground—which turned out to be real. Where Grant had been for the Delta ij initiation.
“Good work,” someone hissed.
I gasped, realizing that the voice came from behind me and not through the phone. I started to turn, but suddenly a rope was wrapped around my neck, choking me. Instinctively, I clawed at it, trying to breathe, but the noose only got tighter.
“Don’t,” I gagged. “I’ll do whatever you want. I just want my son.”
The rope loosened slightly and I managed to swallow—just as the cold, hard end of a gun jabbed into my back.
“You don’t have to shoot me,” I said, calmer than I would have expected.
“Don’t tell me what to do. This is your own fault.”
“I’m only here to get Jimmy.”
“Why would you think I had him?”
I didn’t answer, but I didn’t have to. She already knew.
“You passed the test,” she said. “Or, from your point of view, failed. The name Sandy Baker meant something to you, and you showed up. If you hadn’t, Jimmy could have just gone home.”
“Don’t hurt him,” I whispered. “Do whatever you want to me, but don’t hurt Jimmy.”
“How heroic.” She gave a nasty chuckle. “I’m sure Jimmy won’t mind when his mother’s dead.”
I had a noose at my neck and a gun in my back, but an impulse to fight. Instead, I staggered forward. We could be headed toward Jimmy. I pictured him alone and terrified right now, left in a dark corner. Whatever happened, I had to get to him.
“Tell me what you know,” she said, yanking at the rope.
“You’re Sandy Baker’s sister,” I said softly. “I figured it out this afternoon. She must have asked you to take care of Nicholas, right? Just before she died in the fire.”
I heard her take a deep breath. A loud hissing sounded from one of the pipes in the tunnel, accented by the clicking of my heels against the cement floor. Elsa stepped silently in soft-soled shoes that would allow her to run. Or kill.
“The firemen had carried Sandy to the front lawn,” she said finally, her voice hoarse. “Horribly burned. Unrecognizable. When I arrived, she had a moment of lucidity. I made a promise. She loved her son.”
“Even though he’d started the fire?”
“Nobody ever proved that. Sandy had no idea. Nicholas’s illness had just started. It happens at that age, sometimes.”
“Schizophrenia?” I hazarded. “Or was he just delusional? Bipolar?”
“The diagnoses are never clear,” she said. “Nicholas has a brilliant mind. Mental illness seems to go with being a math genius. As if the brain wiring that makes someone extraordinary means he can’t live normally, too.”
The mad genius theory? Is that what she’d told herself? Like John Nash in
A Beautiful Mind
. But I wondered if any actual medical research supported the connection. Dan would know. But I could only ask if I ever saw him again. Tears sprang to my eyes. I had to hug my husband and children again; it was all I really wanted. But pleading with Elsa wouldn’t help. Instead, I had to keep talking until we got to Jimmy. And then figure out how to escape.
“So let’s see,” I said conversationally, as if chatting about the weather. “Nicholas Baker moved out here and changed his name to Hal Bohr. You followed. Why didn’t you want anybody to know you’re related?”
“I liked keeping an eye on him from a distance,” she said. “He didn’t always know who I was, anyway. All the medication and treatments wiped out some of his memory. He thinks of me as Elsa Franklin, not Auntie. It’s better that way.”
“But the delusions got dangerous. He imagined that Cassie Crawford was in love with him, so he killed her boyfriend, Derek, to get her back.”
“And got away with it,” she said proudly.
My hands felt clammy and my knees trembled as I made myself move forward. The glow from Elsa’s flashlight illuminated a wide circle, several feet in front of me, and I finally dared to glance around and try to get my bearings. Students had obviously cavorted through here often, spray-painting Greek letters—the names of fraternities—on various girders. The underground graffiti suggested good-natured mischief. Nothing like what Hal Bohr had done to Derek.
Or could have done to Grant. I shuddered, thinking of my older son down here in the dark during his initiation to Delta ij, lying in a casket when the famous professor Hal Bohr told him to. Years earlier, Derek had no doubt done the same. But that time, the great physicist had closed the lid. Derek still wouldn’t have sensed danger. Just part of the ritual. Professor Bohr wouldn’t let anything happen.
“Let me guess,” I said more to myself than to Elsa. “After Derek passed out in the casket, Hal gave him the shot of potassium that stopped his heart. Then it was easy enough to drag him upstairs to the physics building. Nobody would suspect murder.”
“A horrible tragedy,” Elsa agreed. “If anybody got suspicious about the death happening the same night as the initiation, there would have been one of those typical investigations into hazing and secret societies. But even that never happened.”
“So Hal was safe. You whisked him away for a semester and got him more treatment. How did Cassie figure it out?”
“By being too good at her job,” Elsa growled. “Once she’d convinced Randall Scott to make a huge donation, I insisted we accept it, no further discussion. But something about Delta ij nagged at her. She didn’t want any scandal tarnishing her precious donors, so she went to talk to Hal. Seeing her brought back all Hal’s old…confusion. Forget Delta ij—he thought he’d impress her by telling her the truth.”
“All or nothing,” I said suddenly.
“All or nothing. That’s what Grant told me Delta ij means. You had everything working just right—Hal hailed as a genius, big donations coming in, your own identity safe. But one wrong word and it could all come tumbling down. All or nothing. You had to kill Cassie.”
“For my sister,” Elsa said. “Hal didn’t have a parent to protect him. I knew what Sandy would want. I listened to her.”
Is that how people passed time in heaven? Ordering murders?
“You’re more loyal than any mother could be,” I said. But that wasn’t quite true. I’d kill Elsa right now to get Jimmy back. Without a moment’s hesitation.
For Elsa, the details must have been easy. She told Cassie they needed to talk privately and got invited to the penthouse. Hal had probably already told her about the family connection, and she’d researched it further. The conversation scared Cassie enough that she hid the papers that night in the library. But not before Elsa had slipped the bottles of Kirin tea into the refrigerator. Elsa had worked with her long enough to know what she liked. Simple, untraceable, and not a bit messy.
“We got into a bit of a tiff the night before she died,” Elsa said, as if correcting my thoughts. “I told her that turning down Randall Scott was just throwing away money. For emphasis, I tossed a quarter across the room. Cracked the corner on some fancy frame.”
“The Rothko,” I said, breathing heavily.
“Whatever. Everything seemed fine until you showed up at my door,” Elsa said irritably. “You’d been with Cassie when she died. I didn’t know what she might have said, but you took the bait to investigate Billy Mann.”
“He’d always been Cassie’s confidant. Once you realized they’d gotten close again, he had to die, too.”
“The second time’s easier,” Elsa said with a chuckle. “I can’t wait to see how easy it is the third time.”
A wave of heat flushed through my body as I envisioned the gunshot wound at the top of Billy’s tattoo—no doubt made with the very weapon that was now jabbed into my back. I had to think of something else. My mind made the obvious leaps.
“The letter you showed me that night on the red carpet. From Billy to Cassie. You wrote it yourself, right?”
“Of course I wrote it,” Elsa said, pleased with herself. “Spelling mistakes and all. And you fell for it. Have to admit that it threw you off track for a while.”
“I admit,” I said.
She laughed and I joined in, my terror briefly converted to a high-pitched giggle.
But our odd connection, forged in the dark, was about to end.
“We’re here,” Elsa said suddenly.
She shoved me hard around a corner, and the ray of her light briefly caught the edge of a heavy wooden structure. Then she flicked off the beam, and in the sudden darkness something struck the back of my head with such force that I fell over, crumpling from the shock. I thought I’d been shot but then realized she’d hit me with the butt of the gun.
I got to my feet, flailing, but Elsa came at me with her full strength, smacking the gun into my jaw. I staggered back, blood gushing from my chin. She dove for my legs, lifting me off the ground and upending me so that I plunged into a shallow hole.
I fought to sit up, but she’d grabbed the rope that still hung loosely around my neck and pulled hard.
I screamed, feeling the air rushing from me.
“Don’t worry, I won’t kill you,” she snarled. “You get to kill yourself. Choose your own method of death, Lacy Fields.” She slipped the end of the rope through a loop in the casket top and pulled. “I recommend suffocation, but since you’re not the holding-still type, there’s a decision. If you get the lid up, the rope pulls and strangles you. Very clever, hmm? I like to think that Nicholas got some of his genius from me.”
With a sickening
the lid of the casket slammed shut. Plunged into utter blackness, I felt a dank, oppressive heat searing into me. The acrid smells of mold and blood and fear filled my nostrils, but the oxygen seemed to have been ripped from my lungs and I could hardly breathe. From the outside of my death trap, I heard a latch snap and a bolt slide into place.
Then silence. Utter, absolute silence. Except for the sounds of my heart, pounding so loudly that the thumping reverberated in my ears.
Wait a minute,
She said we were going to see Jimmy.
That I’d been tricked seemed worse than death. That I’d never hold Jimmy again, intolerable. My sudden, gasping sobs echoed in the closed chamber. Tears streaked down and clogged my throat. I coughed, choking on my own grief.
I closed my eyes, trying to regain some semblance of control. My hands had been wedged against the sides of the casket, but without too much effort, I pulled them free. Elbows pressed close to my body, I stretched my arms, touching the top without much effort. I couldn’t get much leverage, but the little push I managed yielded no results. Not a surprise. The latch and bolt I’d heard had probably sealed the casket—and my fate.
No, I couldn’t let myself believe that.
I brought my hands to my neck and felt the rope that circled it. Running my fingers along it, I touched the loop that the rope ran through, but then couldn’t reach any farther. For Elsa’s choking plan to work, the rope needed a third anchor point. Had she secured it outside the casket? If so, the rope might be propping the casket open just enough to let me breathe for a while.
But I couldn’t count on it.
I had to do something. Without any other plan, I resolved to get the cord off my neck. I didn’t have much room to move, but I lifted my head an inch or two and tugged the noose upward. Too tight. I tucked my chin and twisted my head slightly, like I did when taking off the Donna Karan sweater with the too-narrow funnel neckline. But no luck. If only the rope had that one percent Lycra that made everything fit better.
I put my head back and stared into the darkness. My body had been pouring out so much fight-or-flight adrenaline that I felt exhausted. Since right now I could neither fight nor flee, maybe I should take a nap. Not have to think. At least preserve my strength.
Then I gritted my teeth. Preserve my strength for what? So I could die rested? Warren Zevon had it right: I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I wasn’t dead yet.
A rope could be cut, but I didn’t happen to have scissors in my pocket. So what did I have? A metal watch band might do the trick, but I happened to be wearing my Jaeger-LeCoultre with the satin strap. Very chic, but too soft to hack through Jell-O. I felt the other wrist and, despite myself, smiled. As always, I had on the diamond tennis bracelet that Dan had given me for my last birthday. Weren’t diamonds the strongest mineral on earth? If they could engrave glass, they could also sever a tough twine.