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Authors: Elizabeth George

For the Sake of Elena

BOOK: For the Sake of Elena
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For Mom and Dad,
who encouraged the passion
and tried to understand everything else

Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick,
Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen,
And a languor of wax congeals the vein
No matter how fiercely lit.

SYLVIA PLATH

Author’s Note

Those familiar with the city of Cambridge and with Cambridge University will recognize that there is little enough space between Trinity College and Trinity Hall in the first place, let alone enough space to hold the seven courts and four hundred years of architecture which comprise my fictional St. Stephen’s College.

I am indebted in any number of ways to a fine group of people who did their best to unlock for me the mysteries of Cambridge University from the standpoint of the senior fellows: Dr. Elena Shire of Robinson College, Professor Lionel Elvin of Trinity Hall, Dr. Mark Bailey of Gonville and Caius College, Mr. Graham Miles and Mr. Alan Banford of Homerton College.

I am additionally grateful to the undergraduates and postgraduates who did their best to school me in the finer points of life as a junior fellow: Sandy Shafernich and Nick Blain of Queens’ College, Eleanor Peters of Homerton College, and David Derbyshire of Clare College. Most especially, I am deeply indebted to Ruth Schuster of Homerton College who orchestrated my visits to supervisions and lectures, who arranged for my attendance at formal dinner, who did additional photographic research for me, and who patiently and heroically answered countless questions about the city, the colleges, the faculties, and the University. Without Ruth I would have been a lost soul indeed.

I thank Inspector Pip Lane of Cambridge Constabulary for his assistance and suggestions in details of plot; Beryl Polley of Trinity Hall for introducing me to her boys on
L
staircase; and Mr. John East of C.E. Computing Services in London for all the information about the Ceephone.

And especially I thank Tony Mott for patiently listening to a brief and enthusiastic description of a murder site and recognizing it and giving it a name.

In the United States, I owe debts of gratitude to Blair Maffris, who always fields my questions on any aspect of art; to painter Carlos Ramos, who allowed me to spend a day with him in his studio in Pasadena; to Alan Hallback, who provided me with a beginner’s course in understanding jazz; to my husband Ira Toibin, whose patience, support, and encouragement are the most important mainstays in my life; to Julie Mayer, who never gets tired of reading rough drafts; to Kate Miciak and Deborah Schneider—editor and literary agent—who continue to believe in the literary mystery.

If this book is at all accurate, it is owing to the good-natured involvement of this generous group. Any missteps and errors are mine alone.

1

Elena Weaver awakened when the second light went on in her bed-sitting room. The first light, twelve feet away on her desk, managed only to rouse her moderately. The second light, however, positioned to shine directly in her face from an angle-lamp on the bedside table, acted as efficiently as a blast of music or a jangling alarm. When it broke into her dream—an unwelcome interloper, considering the subject matter her subconscious had been pursuing—she bolted upright in bed.

She hadn’t started out the previous night in this bed or even in this room, so for a moment she blinked, perplexed, wondering when the plain red curtains had been changed for that hideous print of yellow chrysanthemums and green leaves lounging on a field of what appeared to be bracken. They were drawn across a window which was itself in the wrong place. As was the desk. In fact, there shouldn’t have been a desk in here at all. Nor should it have been strewn with papers, notebooks, several open volumes, and a large word processor.

This last item, as well as the telephone beside it, brought everything sharply into focus. She was in her own room, alone. She’d come in just before two, torn off her clothes, dropped exhausted into bed, and managed about four hours’ sleep. Four hours…Elena groaned. No wonder she’d thought she was elsewhere.

Rolling out of bed, she thrust her feet into fuzzy slippers and quickly drew on the green woollen bathrobe that lay in a heap next to her jeans on the floor. The material was old, worn down to a feathery softness. Her father had presented her with a fine silk dressing gown upon her matriculation into Cambridge a year ago—indeed, he had presented her with an entire wardrobe which she had mostly discarded—but she had left it at his house on one of her frequent weekend visits, and while she wore it in his presence to appease the anxiety with which he seemed to watch her every move, she never wore it at any other time. Certainly not at home in London with her mother, and never here in college. The old green one was better. It felt like velvet against her bare skin.

She padded across the room to her desk and pulled open the curtains. It was still dark outside, and the fog which had lain upon the city like an oppressive miasma for the past five days seemed even thicker this morning, pressing against the casement windows and streaking them with a lacework of moisture. On the wide sill stood a cage with a small bottle of water hanging on its side, an exercise wheel in its centre, and an athletic-sock-turned-nest in its far right-hand corner. Curled into this was a dollop of fur the size of a tablespoon and the colour of sherry.

Elena tapped her fingers against the icy bars of the cage. She brought her face up to it, caught the mixed smells of shredded newspaper, cedar shavings, and pungent mouse droppings, and blew her breath softly in the direction of the nest.

“Muh-owz,” she said. Again, she tapped against the bars of the cage. “Muh-owz.”

Within the small mound of fur, a bright brown eye opened. The mouse lifted his head. His nose tested the air.

“Tibbit.” Elena smiled in delight as his whiskers twitched. “Mornun, muh-owz.”

The mouse scampered from his nest and came to inspect her fingers, clearly expecting a morning treat. Elena opened the cage door and picked him up, scarcely three inches of lively curiosity in the palm of her hand. She perched him on her shoulder, where he immediately began an investigation into the possibilities presented by her hair. This was quite long and quite straight, its colour identical to the mouse’s fur. These facts seemed to offer the promise of camouflage, for he snuggled happily between the collar of Elena’s robe and her neck, where he anchored himself onto the material and began to wash his face.

Elena did the same, opening the cupboard that housed the basin and switching on the light above it. She went on to brush her teeth, to bind her hair back with a bit of ribboned elastic, and to rustle through her clothes cupboard for her tracksuit and a jersey. She pulled on the trousers and went next door to the gyp room.

She flipped on the light and examined the shelf above the stainless steel sink. Cocoa Puffs, Wheetabix, Corn Flakes. The sight of all of them made her stomach roll uneasily, so she opened the refrigerator, pulled out a carton of orange juice, and drank directly from it. Her mouse put an end to his morning ablutions and scuttled back onto her shoulder in anticipation. As she continued to drink, Elena rubbed her index finger on the top of his head. His tiny teeth gnawed at the edge of her fingernail. Enough of affection. He was getting impatient.

“Awright,” Elena said. She rooted through the refrigerator—grimacing at the rank smell of milk gone bad—and found the jar of peanut butter. A fingertip of this was the mouse’s daily treat, and he set upon it happily when she presented it to him. He was still working the residue out of his fur when Elena returned to her room and placed him on her desk. She threw off her robe, pulled on a jersey, and began to stretch.

She knew the importance of warming up before her daily run. Her father had drummed it into her head with monotonous regularity ever since she had joined the University’s Hare and Hounds Club in her first term. Still, she found it horrifically boring, and the only way she managed to complete the series of stretches was to combine them with something else, such as fantasizing, making toast, gazing out the window, or reading a bit of literature she’d been avoiding for ages. This morning she combined the exercising with toast and window gazing. While the bread was browning in the toaster on her bookshelf, she worked on loosening leg and thigh muscles, her eyes on the window. Outside, the fog was creating a billowing whirlpool round the lamppost in the centre of North Court, holding out the guarantee of an unpleasant run.

Out of the corner of her eye, Elena saw the mouse scooting back and forth across the top of her desk, pausing to raise himself on hind legs and sniff the air. He was nobody’s fool. Several million years of olfactory evolution told him that more food was in the offing, and he wanted his share.

She glanced at the bookshelf to see the toast had popped up. She broke off a piece for the mouse and tossed it in his cage. He scrambled immediately in that direction, his tiny ears catching the light like diaphanous wax.

“Hey,” she said, catching the little animal in his progress across two volumes of poetry and three Shakespearean criticisms. “Say g’bye, Tibbit.” Fondly, she rubbed her cheek against his fur before replacing him in the cage. The piece of toast was nearly his size, but he managed to drag it industriously towards his nest. Elena smiled, tapped her fingers on the cage top, grabbed the rest of the toast, and left the room.

As the corridor’s glass firedoor whooshed closed behind her, she put on the jacket of her tracksuit and pulled up its hood. She ran down the first flight of
L
staircase and swung round the landing by grasping the wrought iron banister and landing lightly in a crouch, taking the pressure of her weight in her legs and ankles, rather than in her knees. She took the second flight at a quicker pace, dashed across the entry, and flung open the door. The cold air hit her like water. Her muscles stiffened in reaction. She forced them to relax, running in place for a moment as she shook her arms. She breathed in deeply. The air—with the fog taking its origin in the river and the fens—tasted of humus and woodsmoke, and it covered her skin quickly with a watery down.

She jogged across the south end of New Court, sprinting through the two passageways to Principal Court. No one was about. No lights were on in rooms. It was wonderful, exhilarating. She felt inordinately free.

And she had less than fifteen minutes to live.

Five days of fog dripped off buildings and trees, made wet lattice on windows, created pools on the pavement. Outside St. Stephen’s College, a lorry’s hazard lights flashed in the mist, two small orange beacons like blinking cat’s eyes. In Senate House Passage, Victorian lampposts reached long fingers of yellow light through the fog, and the Gothic spires of King’s College first rose against then disappeared altogether into a backdrop of gloom the colour of grey doves. Beyond that, the sky still wore the guise of a mid-November night. Full dawn was yet an hour away.

Elena pounded from Senate House Passage into King’s Parade. The pressure of her feet against the pavement sent an answering quiver up the muscles and bones of her legs and into her stomach. She pressed her palms against her hips, just where his had been last night. But unlike last night, her breathing was steady, not rapid and urgent and centred single-mindedly on that frantic rise to pleasure. Still, she could almost see his head thrown back. She could almost see him concentrating on the heat, the friction, and the slick profusion of her body’s desire. She could almost see his mouth form the words
oh God oh God oh God oh God
as his hips thrust up and his hands pulled her down harder and harder against him. And then her name on his lips and the wild beating of his heart against his chest. And his breathing, like a runner.

She liked to think of it. She’d even been dreaming of it when the light went on in her room this morning.

She powered along King’s Parade towards Trumpington, weaving in and out of the patchy light. Somewhere not far away, a breakfast was cooking, for the air held the faint scent of bacon and coffee. Her throat began to close uneasily in response, and she increased her speed to escape the odour, splashing through a puddle that sent icy water seeping through her left sock.

At Mill Lane, she made the turn towards the river. The blood was beginning to pound in her veins, and in spite of the cold, she had started to perspire. A line of sweat beneath her breasts was trickling towards her waist.

Perspiration’s the sign that your body is working, her father would tell her. Perspiration, naturally. He would never say
sweat
.

The air seemed fresher as she approached the river, dodging two dust carts that were manned by the first living creature she had seen out on the streets this morning, a workman wearing a lime green anorak. He heaved a haversack onto the pushbar of one of the carts and lifted a thermos as if to toast her as she passed.

At the end of the lane, she darted onto the pedestrian bridge that spanned the River Cam. The bricks beneath her feet were slick. She ran in place for a moment, fumbling with the wrist of her track jacket to get a look at her watch. When she realised she’d left it back in her room, she cursed softly and jogged back across the bridge to have a quick look down Laundress Lane.

Damn, damn, double damn. Where is she?
Elena squinted through the fog. She blew out a quick gust of breath in irritation. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to wait, and if her father had his way, it wouldn’t be the last.

“I won’t have you running alone, Elena. Not at that hour of the morning. Not along the river. We won’t have any discussion about this. If you’d care to choose another route..”

But she knew it wouldn’t matter. Another route and he’d only come up with another objection. She should never have let him know that she was running in the first place. At the time, it had seemed an innocuous enough piece of information.
I’ve joined Hare and Hounds, Daddy
. But he managed to turn it into yet another display of his devotion to her. Just as he did when he got hold of her essays prior to supervisions. He’d read them, brow furrowed, his posture and expression both declaring: Look how concerned I am, see how much I love you, note how I treasure having you back in my life, I’ll never leave you again, my darling. And then he’d critique them, guiding her through introductions and conclusions and points to be clarified, bringing her stepmother in for further assistance, sitting back in his leather chair with his eyes shining earnestly.
See what a happy family we are?
It made her skin crawl.

Her breath steamed the air. She’d waited more than a minute. Still no one emerged from the grey soup of Laundress Lane.

Stuff it
, she thought, and ran back to the bridge. On the Mill Pool beyond her, swans and ducks etched out their shapes in the gauzy air while on the southwest bank of the pool itself a willow wept branches into the water. Elena gave one final glance over her shoulder, but no one was running to meet her, so she herself ran on.

BOOK: For the Sake of Elena
11.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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