Chapter 1/2

Chapters One & Two

Chapter One - Nick

Someone on the bus stank. It was unbearable, like a wet, moldy washcloth, buried under a sink full of dishes. Nick knew the smell well. Lately it seemed, he only got around to cleaning the kitchen once a month, if that. He used to be obsessive about it, but then he’d started screwing around with Morgan, which meant he ate all his meals on the run and was never home. They never came back to his place, his conscience would have killed him.

He was a married man, cheating on his wife with a college sophomore. He felt terrible about what he was doing, but at the same time, it didn’t feel entirely wrong. Yeah, he was married, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like he was, and as far as most people knew, he wasn’t. In the last year, he and his wife had been together only once, for what had been a less than cozy week
. He wasn’t sure what the deal was. It was like Kendra was two different people. There was the girl he’d met as a senior at the University -- that Kendra had been funny, spontaneous, and a bit of a freak, the good kind of freak, the bedroom variety. They’d had a good sex life, a good relationship, never a boring one. That Kendra was exciting, and intense, and present, always present. Her eyes were always on him, reading his thoughts, smiling oddly when she caught him looking her way.

Then they’d gotten married.

That was her idea.

At the time they’d been together about seven months, which was short, but something about their relationship had seemed different somehow. Destiny or what have you. She brought up the idea, he couldn’t think of a reason not to, so they’d gone for it. Kendra handled the wedding stuff while Nick planned the honeymoon. He booked them a room at the Olympic Hotel downtown, a Seattle classic with just enough New York snoot to make Kendra swoon. They’d stayed there for one weekend, fucking their brains out, lazing around the room, and wandering the town, goo goo eyed and dreamy. In the fall they found an apartment in Greenlake and Kendra started her graduate work at the college.

Meanwhile, Nick had gone about trying to put his liberal arts degree to work. That was easier said than done. He wanted to be a writer, movies mostly, books maybe, but the thing was, people didn’t go around hiring fiction writers. Hell, they didn’t seem to hire anybody. He and Kendra had been fortunate enough to graduate during the worst job market in years. Course, Kendra had planned on grad school from the start. He’d always had a chip on his shoulder when it came to going back to school. College was more fun for fictional inspiration than for living.

Despite his troubles finding work, that summer had been fun. Kendra still had her student worker position at the college through the fall, and a bunch of Nick’s buddies, including Will Baker, had stayed in the area for a few more nostalgic months. The bunch of them had run around town like old times, drinking and fighting and earning a buck here and there doing demolition and home painting work for Will’s father. It was a good summer. Married life seemed to be off on the right foot.

Then came the fall, which brought opportunities for Kendra, and frustrations for Nick.

Kendra was in the graduate program in the School of Oceanography, the same department she’d studied in for her undergrad years. The leap to the Master’s program had unleashed a wave of study and research possibilities. As Nick scoured the net for job postings, and rode the bus downtown to deliver countless resumes and personalized cover letters door to door, Kendra started coming home with ever-growing piles of research program literature, all of which seemed to involve long stretches of time out on the open water, plenty of sun drenched tropical locales, and thousands upon thousands of miles separating her from Seattle, and him. They’d just signed a one-year lease, and Nick was dead broke, but no matter how he tried to reason with her, he knew Kendra was dying to take part in one of the studies. He didn’t know what worried him. Maybe it was the newlywed thing. Maybe it was just jealousy. He was having a hard time, she was having a ball. Whatever it was, he told himself he was being petty, they’d made the commitment to each other. They were married. Wasn’t this what marriage was all about? She’d do her thing while he made the sacrifice and stayed in Seattle. In the future his own work might take him from the area, and then she’d return the favor, either traveling with him, or making things work at home while he followed opportunity wherever it might lead.

“It’s not that important. Other projects will come up,” she muttered.

“Are you sure?” he asked, leaning his head down to look her in the eyes.

She’d turned, “Of course.”

He’d sat there quietly. He could still remember the sound of the heater kicking on in the next room. The bubbles rumbling up through the radiator pipes.

“Go,” he said. “You have to go.”

“I don’t
have to,” she protested, but the way she said “have,” told him that she did.

So, she’d applied. He’d insisted on it.

The letter of acceptance arrived in October, but that had been a mere formality. Kendra had interviewed with only current and former professors from the University, so her admission was a done deal. The middle of fall was a blur. By Thanksgiving, all of Nick’s buddies had left town, and Kendra had her tickets in hand to go to Key West for the next nine months. She’d be back in the summer, and every chance she could get before then. Kendra had made their Thanksgiving dinner, then the next day they’d celebrated Christmas, eating leftover turkey and exchanging their presents in case they couldn’t afford tickets for the actual holiday when it did come around. On Sunday night Nick drove her to the airport, they kissed goodbye, and she got on the plane.

That was when the second Kendra had slowly made her debut. When she first got to Florida, the calls had been frequent. She told him about the program, about the scientists, about the other researchers. She was getting her diving certification, learning the area, getting settled in. Then, slowly but surely, the calls had begun to taper off. She’d promise to call at a certain time, then she wouldn’t. He’d call, get her voice mail, then finally hear from her, sounding distracted or tired, or just plain detached. He’d somehow brushed that off as his own insecurity. He still hadn’t found a regular gig and was working as a temp in the customer service department for Starbucks Corporate. The job was hell. He came home at night, six pack in hand, opening the first bottle even as he walked to the fridge to deposit the carrier. Sitting at home, drunk, in an empty apartment, he began to grow suspicious. Why wasn’t she calling? He’d sit there and stew, clasping his hands together, digging his fingers into the seat cushions as he considered the possibilities, every possible indiscretion flickering through his mind. Then, occasionally, she’d call and he’d feel a little bit better.

She finally made it back for a visit in March. It was an awkward reunion. He met her at the airport and felt an immediate chill. It didn’t seem so much like she didn’t want to be there, as it seemed she was too busy to relax and spend the time with him. His heart had fluttered when he’d first caught sight of her coming down the concourse at Seatac.
Fluttered! There was no manly word for it. He was glad to see her. The last few months had been dreary. She looked great. He waved, she smiled slightly, and he leaned in to kiss her. Looking back on it, he’d had to lean in just a bit too far, but as with everything else, he’d ignored it.

“Hey. I’ve missed you,” He said.

She brushed the hair from her eyes and looked up. “I’ve missed you too.”

As soon as she said it, he knew she didn’t mean it.

The frost melted away slowly during that week, and on the second to last night they’d finally made love. It didn’t go so well, but they had done it. Perhaps they’d both felt that drastic action was called for. Maybe.

Or maybe they’d just wanted a break from asking the same questions.

“Is something wrong?”

“No. Is something wrong with you?

“No…”

He hated to say it, but Nick was almost relieved when she’d left. He didn’t hear from her for another two weeks after that, then she just called to tell him that one of the professors had spoken to a friend in the Department of Immunology at the University, and had put in a good word for him for an Editor of Research Publications position that had opened up. He didn’t want the job, but he called, and a week later, he got it.

There wasn’t much to say about research papers. He wasn’t a scientist. His interests were women, writing, movies, and fiction, in that order. The idea of someone spending their days stabbing mice with syringes and measuring every fluid, growth, and body function that resulted, seemed like a slow death sentence, and not just for the mice. But if he thought that was bad, reading the papers on each study was immeasurably worse. None of the researchers spoke English as their first language, and since scientific lingo was about as understandable to him as a Chinese encyclopedia, he may as well have been reading each manuscript upside down while trying to correct the grammar. His eyes crossed, his mind wandered, and he found himself sinking into his chair each day, glancing at the second hand on the clock, or staring into the wall of his cubicle.

That had all changed in August. The summer, like the rest of the past year, had been quiet. There was a drought in Seattle, so any time outside had been dry, almost blistering. He rode the bus to the University, did his job, good, bad, he didn’t know, didn’t care, then he rode the bus home in the sweltering heat, or put on shorts in the men’s room and walked home to the apartment in Greenlake, where the night was spent on the couch, staring into the flickering blue glow of the television screen. Kendra phoned about once a month now. August 10
th was the date of her last call. She'd been scheduled to return to Seattle around the fifteenth, but had called to discuss the possibility of staying on in the Keys for another year. Nick mumbled something and hung up the phone. He went into work the next day and bumped into Morgan.

She was gorgeous. Kendra was gorgeous, but Morgan had something else, something he couldn’t put his finger on. It wasn’t that she was flighty, or flirty, though the second term seemed to apply, it was that she was aggressive, and she was
sexy. If Kendra was Ingrid Bergman, than Morgan was Grace Kelly, both were classically beautiful women, but one was colder, more reserved, while the other let her interests simmer closer to the surface, where every so often they could boil over and burn you. He knew something would happen between them the first time he saw her. Her eyes told him so. The way she touched him on the shoulder only confirmed it. She was interviewing for a student assistant position in the department. It was about a month before she’d be starting her sophomore year, but she’d come in early to try to beat out the competition. It had worked. Afterwards, as she stood outside the department conference room, waiting for the manager and one of the professors who had interviewed her to make their decision, she’d wandered down to Nick’s cubicle and leaned against the wall, staring at him.

“Hi,” she said.

He turned to her with a start. “Hi.”

“You work here?”

His faced flushed. “Yeah.”

“Are you a student?”

Why was he so nervous?

“I was. I graduated last year.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you working here?”

“That’s a good question,” he sighed.

She laughed.

Then he leaned back in his chair, not sure what to say next. His eyes kept moving down to her chest. He felt like a cartoon wolf. He locked on her eyes as he watched her play with her hair.

“You’re interviewing for the assistant job?”

“Yeah.”

“You in this program?”

“God no!”

He laughed. “Good.”

Then she turned to him. “So are you single or what?”

He almost said, “Excuse me?!” But instead of showing surprise at her sudden question, he listened curiously to his own response.

“It’s complicated.”

She looked at him and smiled.

“Complicated’s okay. Complicated’s kind of sexy.”

She got the job, and they started hanging out after work. When classes started she took him to parties at her friends’ houses. By that time they were more than just friends. They fooled around in the bathrooms at the parties. They went to Morgan’s apartment and he stayed the night. He would have felt guilty about what he was doing, but Kendra never called, and whenever he tried her phone, his calls just went to voice mail. Aside from one brief break in November, when the guilt had finally caught up with him and he’d tried to put an end to things, he and Morgan had been fucking like maniacs for the better part of eight months. They’d even started fooling around at work. They’d find handicapped bathrooms with locking doors, the empty offices of professors on sabbatical, they’d even done it in a lecture auditorium after one of Morgan’s evening classes. Every time Nick decided it was time to end things, he’d find himself alone with her, and before he knew it,
ending the affair was the last thing on his mind.

This morning he was feeling a tinge of remorse. He wondered if he was self destructing because of the job, Lord knew he hated it. Maybe he was getting back at his wife. By now he was certain she was cheating on him too, but with one of the researchers in Florida. Hell, he didn’t know what to think. He didn’t even know if he was doing a decent job when it came to his editing work. Probably not. He couldn't keep his eyes focused on anything he was reading, it was all mind numbing. Pointless. He tried to burn through the pages as quickly as possible, marking up the visible mistakes and checking things over as best he could, all the while waiting for Morgan to come in for the day and sneak off with him at lunch, or during his first break, or even earlier if he couldn’t wait that long. Was anyone onto them? Probably. He didn’t even care.

Now here he was, sitting on the bus, riding into work with some body odor lab specimen somewhere in his vicinity. He hated B.O., it made him want to punch people. Today was a big day for the department; someone big was coming in to check up on his grant money. This was Seattle, the software capital of the world. Apparently one of the original computer legends had called that week to set up an appointment. Third richest man in the world, tens of billions of dollars, unmatched influence and power, and yet, Nick wasn’t interested in meeting the guy, he just needed his girl, a distraction from the questions in his head, and the quiet of his empty apartment. He just wanted to get to the next stop, get off the bus, get away from the stench, and get to his girl. He had to see Morgan. If it didn’t happen soon he was going to scream.

Chapter Two - Renoir

He had five children. Ten grandchildren. Two houses. Two countries. One wife. They’d been married for forty-five years. Isabelle. That was how he categorized his life, if he ever stopped to think about it. To some, the clean, mathematical numbers might have seemed odd, but he’d worked with numbers all his life, he recognized them, processed them without thought. He was a scientist and a professor. When he wasn’t performing studies and calculating data, he was teaching courses and determining grades. He liked teaching, as much as he liked anything. His hobby was cooking, a source of constant frustration, but somehow it relaxed him. He was that kind of man. Irritation kept him going. Cooking, like science, required careful measurement, replication of processes, weighing the outcome, and evaluating the results. Michel Renoir was nothing if not methodical. Some thought him odd, others kind. No one would have called him eccentric. At the moment, he was sixty-seven years old.

He woke at 6:30 everyday, even on weekends. Today he’d been up at the usual time, had his coffee, read the paper, gone for a walk by the water. When he came back to the house, Isabelle had set out his suit for the day. He always wore a suit to work. He had twenty of them. All dark. All tailored to his frame, which was tall, solid, but not large. Many of his younger colleagues dressed more casually than he had throughout his career. He might have noticed this, but it didn’t bother him. He wasn’t that kind of man. He lived too much in his head to be bothered by the habits of others, except for some students.

He stood in front of the mirror, his aftershave still wet on his cheeks as his fingers quickly folded the fabric of his tie into a tight knot at his neck. He folded down his collar and walked into the other room, where Isabelle sat watching TV, one of the morning shows. She turned to him as he walked in.

“Don’t forget Jonathan’s birthday this evening.”

“Of course not.”

Jonathan was their grandson.

“We’re meeting at The Dahlia Lounge at six. Then going back to Jean and Cindy’s house to open presents.”

“I’ll be there. Will you need a ride?”

“They’re picking me up on the way.”

Michel nodded his head. He knew today would be busy. They had interviews for the PhD program all day, not to mention the arrival of Jeff Pepper first thing that morning. He was not easily impressed, but this was a big deal. It wasn’t everyday the world’s third richest man arrived to watch his grant dollars at work. Everything about the visit was unusual, planned only the week before. His people had called the department to set up the date. Raj Gupta had almost had a heart attack, first panicking, then growing flustered, then irritable, and finally, self-important, it was a familiar pattern. The grant was in his laboratory. He’d been nothing if not secretive about its progress. Michel clenched his teeth. He never criticized people, and he’d never say it out loud, but he didn’t like Raj. He didn’t trust him. If he’d had a say, the man would never have stayed in the department as long as he had, but it had never been his decision to make. Michel had just been an assistant professor when the man was hired. He’d been tied up in his own research, his own dreams of discovery and awards. Plus, Raj had been Roger Dibble’s pet project. Roger had recruited him specifically, based on the man’s transcript, his sparkling research publications, and his single-minded focus. It had been an unusual choice, as Roger had always disdained the very type of scientist Raj had shown every sign of being, even from day one. There was no balance. Like everyone in the department, Raj was married with kids, he was young, twenty-eight, twenty-nine at the most when he came to the University over twenty-five years ago. From his first day he’d proven himself a first class asshole. He interrupted people. He talked over them. He changed subjects on a whim. Blatantly ignored specific requests. He had his post-docs write all his papers before he slapped on his corresponding author credit. But most tellingly to Michel, it seemed the man ignored his family. That was the big problem, he was always there. If Michel came in early to prepare for a lecture, Raj would be there, hunched at his desk. When he left at night, Raj would be in his lab, delegating work to his post docs, all of whom he clearly treated with contempt. These were all signs of a poor researcher. If there was no balance, then there was no time for the mind to recover and think. Einstein had had a family life and a whole slew of mistresses. It was when you were quiet, or in Einstein’s case, when you were screwing around, that the mind flourished. When you’re always pushing paper and bustling along in pursuit of the awards and the expanding list of publications, that’s when you lose sight of what the research is all about - trying to make things
better for people! Raj didn’t care about people, which meant he’d never win that nobel prize he felt certain was in his future. Michel smirked to himself. How many decades had he stood in the mirror, putting on his tie, musing about Raj? Now Roger was long retired, and Michel was stuck with his friend’s pet project, who both of them, Roger included, had come to despise. Had Raj not been so entirely oblivious to the opinions of others, he would clearly have picked up on the loathing Renoir directed towards him, but as it was, he was clueless. Now there was this Jeff Pepper business to deal with, and Raj would be like the prize peacock, strutting around the department, preening his feathers and looking down his nose at the rest of the department. It would be unbearable.

Truth be told, he couldn’t recall what it was that Raj was working on these days. He’d heard the budget names batted back and forth the last few years, but he’d heard so many study names over his time in the field that the details of each had long since faded from his memory. He wasn’t alone in this respect. So many studies, so many trials and test groups. They all blended together, one after the other. One stream, one blur of money and announcements. Occasionally this work bred results, but it mostly spawned an incestuous slurry of publications to be cited and recited in paper after paper - “ a tale of tedium and drudgery, signifying nothing.” It sometimes came as a bit of a surprise when the names they’d tossed around in the labs and throughout the department over the years were suddenly published in the newspapers, ballyhooed as the new magic drug or breakout commodity on Wall Street. To Michel, the transition from the world of research to the world of production for profit was a leap he’d never gotten used to. To Raj it was the bridge to money and acclaim. He had his doubts about Raj’s arrangements outside of the department. He’d never been one with an axe to grind, but something in his gut told him there was more to Raj’s interests than was reported back in faculty meetings. Sooner or later they’d need to look a little deeper, make sure nothing was percolating below the surface that might cause trouble for the department.

“Michel, I think that’s tied.”

He stopped. He’d been obsessing, straightening the knot on his tie ‘til his fingers had worried it into a virtual noose. Now he pried the fabric apart with his finger nails. His face was red with irritation.

“I was just thinking about my morning.”

“I know who you were thinking about darling. I just hope one of you retires before he gives you a heart attack.”

Michel laughed. He knew Raj would never retire.

“I think I’m the one who’ll have to call it quits if I ever want to get away from that frustration.”

“Then retire. Please.”

She said it playfully, but he knew she was serious. Isabelle had hated Raj since the day she met him. She felt he was unscrupulous. From time to time she’d even called him evil. Michel had been ready to retire for the last few years, but a part of him was afraid to see what would happen to the department if he left. But he had to go soon. His own research was virtually completed. His labs were closing down. He was more involved with administrative duties than anything else, but his mind wasn’t in it. He was ready to travel again, go back to France with Isabelle. Catch up with friends in Europe and back east. By the end of this school year he felt sure he’d be ready to throw in the towel.

“What’s on your agenda for the day?” he asked her.

“Birthday shopping. Getting a house warming gift for Stephen and Kelly.”

Stephen was another of their sons. Their kids were all growing up, buying houses and having families. God he felt old.

“That should be nice.”

She turned to him slowly.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too.”

He lifted his wallet and car keys from the valet on top of his dresser, put them in his pockets, and walked over to her. He bent down and kissed her.

“I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”

“See you tonight,” she responded.

Isabelle saw a brief flash as sunlight hit the leather on his shoe as he rounded the corner and left the room. Then he was gone. She felt a tug at the corners of her mouth. A sinking feeling tugged at her stomach She didn’t know why. There was no reason to feel this way. It was odd, but there it was, and then she said it, to the silence of the room.

“Be careful.”