When Chavez ran into the hallway a moment later, gun drawn, he found Elizabeth, quivering and seething, standing over a large man with a poleaxed expression and a bloody nose.
Staring at her and the man on the floor, Chavez fought to stifle a laugh. He holstered his pistol, took out his badge, and said, “FBI. Why don’t you just stay there a minute?”
The man put his hands up. “Yeah, okay, dude. No worries. Figured you guys would be around sooner or later.” He slowly brought one hand down to his nose. “Jeez, lady, you’ve got a good left.”
“Who are you?” Chavez asked. “You can put your hands down.”
“Hector Ojeda. One of the professor’s Igors. At least, I was till I escaped the asylum. Got a tissue?”
Bemused, Chavez reached into his pocket, pulled out a white handkerchief, and handed it to the man. Ojeda pressed it to his nose.
“I’m Agent Chavez. This is Elizabeth Wright. We’re looking for Professor Harte.”
Ojeda took the white cloth away from his nose, looked at the bright red stain, and sighed. “He’s gone, dude. No idea where.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Can I stand up?”
“I wouldn’t advise trying to run away again.”
“What, and give Gail Grandchamp here another swing? Don’t worry, no sudden movements.” Ojeda got to his feet.
“So why are you sneaking around?” Chavez repeated.
“I came here looking for Harte, same as you. But the lab on campus was cleaned out, so I came here.”
“How did you wind up inside the house?”
“Poor judgment? The door wasn’t locked. When no one answered the doorbell, I went poking around to see if Harte had left any data on the project behind.” He shrugged. “Shouldn’t have bothered. There’s nothing left; it’s been totally scrubbed. The hard drive’s been pulled from the computer, there’s nothing but old tax returns and appliance manuals in the file drawers.”
“Why didn’t you open the door when we knocked?”
“Didn’t want you to think I’d ransacked the place.”
“Do I look like I’ve got a hard drive tucked in my shorts? No, man, I’m just trying to help Matt.”
Elizabeth took a step towards Ojeda at the mention of her brother, and the big man flinched. Chavez waved her back.
“Where is Mr. Larkin?” Chavez asked. “We’d very much like to speak with him.”
“What do you mean, where is he?” Ojeda looked back and forth between the two of them. “How much do you actually know about what happened?”
“Not nearly enough. Perhaps we should go somewhere that we can talk more comfortably?”
“What, back to the station for a little good cop/bad ninja with your friend?”
“I was actually thinking about a late dinner. My car is outside.”
* * *
Chavez’s car pulled away from the curb in front of Harte’s house, and cruised down the street toward the center of town.
Half a minute later, a second car backed onto the road, its headlights off. It, too, turned and headed down the street.
* * *
“I’ll tell you, the weirdest part about it wasn’t the special effects or the costumes,” said Ojeda, his voice cottony as a result of his swollen nose, a forkful of lemon meringue pie hovering as he spoke. “It was the way you felt when you were around him. He’s floating there, in this total dream state, right, all vague and surreal, but somehow you feel that it’s you that’s a dream. This whole sympathetic abnegation of self sets in.”
“Didn’t you think about calling the police, or talking to someone at the school?” Chavez asked.
“Harte said he had it under control.” Ojeda said around another mouthful. “Besides, they’d have believed me? You’re not even sure you believe me.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You’ve picked up your coffee every time the story got strange, to hide the expression on your face. Don’t sweat it, I’d worry if you did accept this story right away.”
God save me from psychologists, Chavez thought. He knew it was unfair, since getting inside the minds of witnesses and suspects was so much of what Chavez did himself, but he hated being on the receiving end. Still, he thought Ojeda was telling the truth, or some version of it. He didn’t sound like someone making up an outrageous story to get out of trouble, or a paranoid nutjob. Instead, he sounded relieved.
“I felt like an idiot,” Ojeda was saying. “All of the studies indicated that Visulex was safe. I told Matt it would help him. Then when things started to go wrong, I tried to tell him to quit. By then I think the drug was affecting his judgment.
“After the accident, when Harkness froze the project, most of us left – it didn’t seem there was anything left to do. But I still felt guilty about convincing Matt to be involved, so I came back. Not sure what I was trying to accomplish.”
The waitress reached over Chavez’s shoulder, and poured more coffee with a quick splash that half filled his cup and half filled the saucer. Chavez lifted the cup without thinking about it. It was halfway to his mouth when he looked at it, and put it back down without taking a sip. The corner of Ojeda’s mouth twitched.
Chavez turned his attention to Elizabeth. She hadn’t reacted like he had expected she would. No anger at hearing a nonsense story about her brother. No outrage about wasting time while Larkin was still missing. Instead, she was just listening, rapt.
“You’ve seen it, haven’t you, Elizabeth?” Chavez asked. Ojeda looked up from his pie. “You saw what Hector is talking about, the night your husband was attacked.”
Elizabeth looked at him with horror, and Chavez felt his conscience twitch. She started to rise from her seat; he waved her back down. “Elizabeth, please. You saw your brother that night, didn’t you?”
“He’s a good person. You’re going to lock him up.”
“That’s not likely to convince him,” Ojeda muttered. Chavez frowned at him and turned back to Elizabeth.
“It sounds like what your brother needs right now is our help. We can’t give him that unless we know what’s really going on. I need you to trust me. Do you trust me, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth’s eyes roamed over his face. Please, thought Chavez. Please see something other than your husband.
* * *