and featuring a heroine who bears an uncanny resemblance to yours truly.
Writing about Emma Merrigan has turned out to be a very strange experience. Although she’s a completely fictional character, emotionally, when I need to know how she feels about something, I don’t have to check a character matrix to know her reaction, I can just go with my gut. I guess, in some respects, Emma really is my fantasy world.
Morning had the crystal clarity that came to the Midwestern town of Bower only in autumn and only after a hard freeze had put an end to summery thoughts. The sky was a deep blue– strong, almost electric, and framed by the gold and orange leaves clinging defiantly to trees that no longer wanted them.
A breeze completed the perfect morning, stirring the leaves into music and bearing the odor of nothing at all. Locking the front door of her townhouse behind her, Emma Merrigan forgave such a morning for arriving on Thursday, not Saturday.
Beads of translucent moisture covered the windshield of Em’s far from new but well-maintained car. She swiped the windshield with her bare fingers and was relieved to see that they left liquid tracks across the glass. In Michigan in the first full week of November, frost was more likely than dew. This year they’d had a long, beautiful Indian summer, but the longer it lasted, the harder it would end. There could be six inches of snow on the ground by sunset.
Emma had seen more than one winter arrive just that fast, just that unwelcome. Once the Canadian Arctic air broke free, there was nothing but a picket fence in western Ontario to stop its southward march.
Like winter, Em was running late this year. She hadn’t finished any of the chores prudent Midwesterners scheduled between Labor Day and Halloween – not the least of which was getting her real winter coat–the down-filled, calf-length epitome of frigid chic–back from the dry cleaner. As the wipers beat away the dew, she made a mental note to stop on her way home from work.
Emma’s workdays began with a short drive from the townhouse to the parking structure beside the university library where a credit-card-sized piece of plastic velcro’d inside the windshield exchanged greetings with a much larger box suspended from a concrete overhang. It was a new system, installed just before Labor Day, and lost in thoughts of coats, unchanged antifreeze, and a furnace that needed cleaning, Em had the car stopped and the window rolled halfway down before the gate popped up.
Feeling foolish even though the attendant’s box was abandoned and she was the only witness to her creeping senility, Em gunned the car up the ramp.
“We’ll see how great all this is come January.”
For twenty-five years Emma had worked at the library and parked in this structure. She’d watched countless attendants come and go and gotten to know them well, even if they’d never known each other’s names. She’d known what losing that job had meant to some of them.
“Just wait until there’s a layer of ice and crud between us and that California camera!”
Not that there was an us in Emma’s life this autumn. Her dad had died last February after a mercifully short illness. He was the last of the people who’d counted on her. Two husbands were gone, lost to the dark memories of divorce, the second far more painful than the first. Two children, a boy and a girl from that second husband and his first wife but attached to Emma, even after the second divorce, were gone too. Emma had stood by them until they’d gotten themselves launched. Lori, the youngest, had headed for the East Coast; Jay-Jay, who called himself Jeff now that he was grown up, had gone the other way. She stayed in touch with them, but it was a point of pride as bright as the sun that they didn’t need her.
As for other family, Emma had been an only child, raised by her father. She’d grown up believing that her mother had died not long before her first birthday and that Dad had loved his wife too much to consider remarriage after her death, even for his daughter’s sake.
And perhaps Arch Merrigan had loved Eleanor, but death hadn’t separated Emma’s parents. She’d learned the shocking truth about her motherless life while doing undergrad research in the same library where she now worked. Come to think of it, Emma had learned the truth on another November morning, thirty-one years ago.
Partway across the bridge between the parking structure and the library, Emma paused at the handrail. She stared through the wire mesh. Blue skies and breezes faded from perception, replaced by a front-page headline from the Bower Tribune, sharper in memory than it had been in the microfiche reader.
Professor’s wife vanishes. Police puzzled.
The words weren’t the banner headline; that had celebrated the sheathing of Main Street’s dated brick-and-marble facades in “up-to-the-minute decorative aluminum,” but the article had been set in type large enough to catch Em’s eye as she’d scanned fiche after fiche, researching a Political Science assignment on local reaction to the Berlin Airlift.
Em didn’t remember if she’d turned in the Poli-Sci paper. She did remember, and with chest-tightening shock that never diminished, the day-by-day sheets of microscopic print informing Bower of a postwar mystery. In those family-value days, no wife could leave her infant daughter without creating a mystery. The FBI invaded with a platoon of agents who had seemed both drab and exotic in the grainy photographs.
Her father was cleared of all suspicion in the second day’s article. In the third, police and FBI were questioning a garage mechanic who’d gassed up the Merrigan Oldsmobile, checked its oil, and was, apparently, the last person to see Eleanor before she vanished, along with the Olds. On the sixth, he too was declared an innocent man.
After that the articles grew shorter and more cautious: Eleanor Merrigan herself became the mystery. No one, not even Em’s father, knew much about her before they’d met and quickly married. Eleanor had joined her husband’s church, but didn’t attend. She’d joined the university wives’ club, the garden club, and all the other civic-minded clubs where professors’ wives stayed out of sight, out of trouble, but no one remembered her. Apparently, Em’s mother had done a better job of staying out of sight than out of trouble.
One interviewee–a woman whose name Emma hadn’t recognized–suggested that Eleanor Merrigan might have “gone back to that foreign place where she came from.”
Two weeks after the story broke, the FBI located the Merrigan car near a train station in Buffalo, New York. The doors were locked, the keys were under the front seat, the fingerprints were all the same and presumed to be Eleanor Merrigan’s. The last article Emma read began with the cold verdict, Foul play not suspected in wife’s disappearance. The FBI had recalled its aliens and the Bower police chief was quoted: “There’s nothing more we can do except hope Mrs. Merrigan comes to her senses. She’s left a fine husband all alone with that little girl.”
Emma recalled turning off the fiche reader and staring at its blank screen. She recalled each step and thought of a dream-walk across campus to the engineering quad and her father’s office. The department secretary–her hair was blond, her dress was green, and her name one of the few things Em had forgotten about that day–had reminded Emma that on Tuesdays Dr. Merrigan spent his afternoon at the lab; she’d have better luck finding him there, or–better–simply waiting for him at home.
But Emma hadn’t wanted to find her father among colleagues, or–worse–in the house where Eleanor Merrigan’s presence had never faded from carpets, drapes, and furniture that hadn’t changed in Emma’s lifetime. And she didn’t have to. Dad had given her keys to the house and his office when she was in fifth grade and some of her properly parented friends had yet to unlock a door for themselves. Over the secretary’s protests, Em had let herself into his office.
Sitting in Dad’s chair, in his most personal room, she’d studied Eleanor’s portrait, hung where Dad could see it, but obscured from other angles. Eleanor had been considerably younger than her husband, beautiful, smiling, and never more a stranger to her daughter than she’d been on that day.
Dad had arrived not more than a half-hour later–as Emma had known he would. In the university’s tight-knit community word traveled fast that Dr. Archibald Merrigan’s sanctuary had been violated.
The day had been as sour as Em’s mood: soot grey and sleety. Dad was breathing hard and dripping cold water onto the bare floor when he opened the door. He’d known from the start why she was sitting in his chair, staring into a shadowed corner. Truth had shown on his face when their eyes met, though perhaps, in hindsight, he’d merely reacted to what he saw on hers.
“Your mother warned me our marriage wouldn’t be forever, Em. Five years, she said. When you came along, I thought she’d changed her mind. She hadn’t.”
“You looked for her. You and the police and the FBI! After they found the car, you knew she wasn’t hurt or dead or kidnapped. You must have known where she went,” Em had countered with angry statements of hope rather than questions.
“I didn’t know, but I’d promised her I wouldn’t pursue her. Once I knew it wasn’t an accident–we traced her as far as New York City–I accepted it. She was gone. I had you to think about.”
They’d argued. The bitterness and hurt of two silent decades was briefly given voice. Neither of them had ever had Eleanor, except to think about. They had each other–politely, properly, and proudly–and having that, but nothing more, their argument had ended with a tearful hug. By unspoken agreement, truth never again threatened the fiction they had both accepted: Dr. Merrigan, professor and widower, and Emma, his motherless daughter.
Truth or fiction, growing up hadn’t been easy. In the beginning Dad hired a housekeeper, an elderly Italian woman, very exotic for Bower in the Fifties. “If the father is dead,” Mrs. Carbone had said at least once a day, “the family suffers. If the mother dies, the family cannot exist.”
Mrs. Carbone herself died when Em was seven. After that, Em remembered learning how to cook and clean. She took care of herself most of the time, though there was always someone–a colleague’s wife or friend’s mother–to take her shopping in August before school opened and a nurse, no less, from the university hospital to watch over her when she got sick.
Money hadn’t been a problem. Dad was a tenured professor and the university took care of its own. When the time came, Emma had had the grades and the connections to attend whichever school she’d desired. It was the Sixties; father and daughter had disagreed about everything from music to politics, but Em had never seriously considered leaving Bower, never moved out to a dorm or off-campus apartment.
She didn’t date until her senior year when she caught the eye of a young man about to get one of the university’s first computer science degrees. They married a week after graduation and went to live in New York City where Em’s new husband had a promising career until he drew a dangerously low number in the Vietnam draft lottery. Rob wanted to go to Canada; she didn’t. They parted company easily, though not without regrets. Emma lingered in New York, writing computer programs for a large insurance company (her ex- had shown her the basics, also COBOL, Fortran, and several flavors of assembler) until the following Dec ember when she came home for the holidays and never went back.
Emma had lived at home for another three years; it was familiar and cheap, though she could have afforded to move out. Soon after she’d returned to Bower, Dad had pulled a few strings–tugged them gently–and she’d started working at the university library.
The second time she married, Emma was in love. Jeff was an old high-school classmate, recently divorced. He had two children living with him and no interest in the university, unless its football team was doing particularly well. They were friends before they became lovers and she’d expected their marriage to last forever.
Time had proven Emma wrong in ways that still hurt but, determined not to repeat her mother’s crime, she’d overstayed her welcome to complete the raising of children who were never hers. In the end, after a second prolonged, messy divorce, Em had reclaimed her maiden name and made a down payment on a two-bedroom townhouse.
“Beautiful day, Emma!”
A woman’s voice broke Em’s reverie. She saw the sky and the wire mesh of the pedestrian bridge again and nodded behind a smile.
“Definitely one to remember come January.”
Emma fell in step beside the taller, younger woman. Sunshine and blue skies were the order of the morning’s conversation as they waited for the elevator. Em rode down two floors to the third and, amid weather-heavy greetings, threaded her way through corridors and cubicles to the coffee maker.
Her office was on the border between the library’s original brick walls and the largely glass addition that a perennial patron had endowed in the names of progress and estate taxes. Her office’s inner wall was an ivy-scarred mosaic in shades of red and gray. The three other walls were half glass, half wood. Emma’s name and function– Acquisitions–both in easily removed black lettering, clung to the glass. Inside, there were mismatched cabinets, a battered side-chair, a computer-saddled desk, and an eye-catching dot of amber light blinking from her telephone.
Another morning had begun. She settled in quickly, fired up the computer, and pushed the blinking button. There was only one message in the queue:
“Em? Matt here. You in yet...? No, I guess not. Listen, if you’ve got a minute– Shaunekker’s down again and I can’t find a clue in this mess.”
Matt was the library’s official Systems Administrator, the fourth in as many years. Like his predecessors he was a bright young man with a freshly minted Master’s degree and, like them, he had plans to bring the library’s creaky computers into the modern era. Unlike his predecessors, Matt might stick around long enough to finish the job. One week into the job, he’d had the sense to realize that someone kept the network alive between administrators and had found his way to Emma’s office before she’d had to find her way to his. She gave him credit for that, and for paying attention each time she showed him where and why the bodies were buried.
Emma’s monitor awoke with a pulsing, psychedelic display while Daffy Duck announced that she had mail. The mallard’s voice removed some of the urgency from Matt’s message. If Daffy had found her e-mail, then the whirring box beneath her monitor was connected to a functioning network. The last time Eugene Shaunekker’s desktop died, it had taken the whole network with it.
Em could see her mail appearing on the monitor screen, but she couldn’t read it. That wasn’t through any fault of the computer. Watching her light brown hair grow streaky gray hadn’t bothered Emma half as much as losing her near-focus vision–perhaps because she could hide the gray with hair dye but bifocals had only reminded her why she’d switched to contacts back in junior high. She compromised by wearing drugstore glasses over her contacts and kept extra pairs in her desk drawer, in her purse, beside her bed, in the bathroom, and next to her favorite chair. She grabbed the pair from her desk and squinted at the screen.
Half the messages were shared bits of Internet humor, most of the rest were purer junk. Four actually dealt with library acquisitions–better than average. Emma skimmed them, decided they could wait an hour, and gulped coffee before leaving her office, cup in hand.
“ Betty, I’ll be with Matt Barto,” Em told the secretary she shared with the four other offices that backed onto the old brick wall. “Shaunekker’s down again.”
Betty nodded knowingly while her fingers continued their flight over her keyboard. The Director’s ability to contort his computer was legend throughout the library.
“What’s the problem this time?” Emma asked when she reached Matt’s basement office
“He stayed late last night, working on the budget,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the columns parading down the screen.
Em moved ragged manuals and dissected hardware from a chair to the papered floor. “And?” She set her coffee a safe distance from his mug of faintly green tea.
“He was sure he knew what was wrong when he lost his notes. He said he remembered what I’d done to get them back the last time–”
Groaning sympathetically, Em asked: “How much did he manage to lose?”
“Nothing,” Matt complained, looking at his guest for the first time. “It’s all there. I can see every file–valid lengths, valid time-stamps. I even checked for new viruses. The files look healthy, but I can’t open them. They’re stuck in the Twilight Zone.”
Matt was a c ompact young man who kept himself in shape without making a fetish out of it. He had dark, wavy hair which, unfortunately, had started to thin and recede. Matt joked that he could pass for forty and it was the truth. Hairline notwithstanding, Matt had an intelligent face–an attractive face, as Emma had measured attraction throughout her life. She had to remind herself that he was only a few years older than her stepdaughter.
Em held Matt’s eyes just long enough to feel uncomfortable, then looked at his monitor screen. “So, Gene’s locked himself out...and locked you out, too. Let’s figure out how the miracle man did it this time.”
Matt hadn’t moved; she felt him looking at her. The ordinary gaze of one human being watching another? Emma couldn’t say. The world had changed while she was a stepmother. She’d felt like Rip Van Winkle after separating from Jeff. Six years later and the feeling hadn’t gone away. Emma Merrigan tried not to think about men, attraction, or romance. Sometimes she succeeded.
“Passwords, Matt,” she decided, grasping at the first straw to rise from the phosphor mire. “Old Gene’s gone and clobbered his own passwords.”
“No way! All the passwords are over there–” Matt pointed at the rack of cream-colored boxes sharing his space. “Besides, Shaunekker doesn’t use passwords. Can’t. Won’t. You know that; you’re the one who told me he’s allergic to them. This system’s bastard-patched to hell and back just so he doesn’t have to enter his password.”
“All too true, but he’s clobbered the patch and locked himself out. Or locked himself in.”
She’d glimpsed a suspicious entry marching across the monitor screen. Her grasped straw became a redwood spar of certainty.
“He couldn’t have.”
“Matt Barto–” Em reached across to hammer pre-emptive commands on his keyboard. “Never tell your boss what he can’t do.” The screen froze, cleared, reformed. She tapped the glass-covered culprit with an unpolished fingernail. “Says here it’s got a zero-length file and it’s had it since the nineteenth century. He clobbered it. Didn’t you say you checked for zero-lengths and bogus time-stamps?”
“That file’s not supposed to be in his box!” Matt flopped back in his chair long enough to sigh, then scootched forward. He was a classic two-finger typist: unorthodox, but fast and accurate. “It wasn’t there a minute ago, Em. You put it there, just to make an idiot out of me.”
“Trust me, if I had that kind of power over computers, I wouldn’t waste it making you crazy, or Gene either. Sys-admins are a dime a dozen–cheaper in June–but a good director’s worth keeping, with or without his passwords.”
“What would you do with that kind of power?” Matt asked, giving the keyboard a final, authoritative tap.
His screen crackled like nylon in winter, went blank, and boxes all around them began chattering.
“I’d hide behind a firewall the likes of you couldn’t see or break.”
Matt laughed. “Still don’t like networks?”
“The idea’s fine, so long as it doesn’t work too well. Call me old-fashioned. This–” Em gestured at the monitor that mirrored what Gene Shaunekker might be seeing, if he were in his office and watching his screen–“This messing with the guts of someone else’s machine from a windowless room in the basement–even to save them from themselves...especially to save them from themselves, reeks of 1984.”
“You are old fashioned, Auntie Em. Get with the program: 1984’s ancient history. There is no privacy.”
Em swallowed coffee. “I’m ancient history, Matt,” she said, intending to be funny but sounding just a shade bitter and regretful.
“You know this system better than anyone. You should have had this job ten years ago.”
“I know this system because I was here when this system was two student-keypunchers and a computer the size of a refrigerator that did one–count it, one–operation per pass. I don’t have the credentials for today. I never took a computer class in my life, just picked it up as I went along. Hell, Matt, when I started, a million-dollar system wasn’t as sophisticated as a cheap watch is now.”
“And only dinosaurs had the wrists to wear them.”
“Damn straight we did.”
“So, go back to school. Get the damned degree and get out of here! You’re wasting your time, Em.”
Emma shook her head. She wouldn’t admit the truth she heard in Matt’s words, but wouldn’t deny it, either. Coffee cup in hand, she headed for the door. “Times change,” she conceded at the threshold. “If you need me, call.”
“Count on it.”
Emma found the last dregs of the morning’s mail on her chair when she returned to her office. She opened envelopes with catalogs printed in languages she scarcely recognized and handwritten requests that defied translation. Fortified with another cup of coffee, she began the daily challenge of adding titles to the library’s collection. Soon, she was chasing down the source of a new East European political journal.
She ate lunch at her desk, a thermos of soup and a slab of machine-made bread, and switched her allegiance to tea, on the advice of the doctor who’d said “at your age, you shouldn’t be taking in caffeine after noon.” At ten after six, Daffy Duck reappeared on her monitor screen and reminded Em that it was time to go for a walk. She gathered her daily belongings; one more library chore and she’d be headed home.
Back in September, two weeks into the Fall term, a freshman evidently subsisting on a diet of pills and cola had died in the library stacks. Whether her death had been an accident or a suicide remained an open question, but no one had reported that the young woman was missing from her dorm and two student employees had discovered her body only after they’d noticed the odor. With solemn voice-overs and righteous indignation, the national media had jumped on the story. Satellite uplinks had sprouted like mushrooms and for nearly a week the plight of students away from home for the first time had been the crisis of the airwaves.
The university had needed to do something symbolic to atone for the tragedy. The head of campus security resigned. Students held a rally and promised to keep a closer eye on their roommates. And Gene Shaunekker announced that, effectively immediately, library staff would inspect every nook and cranny of the stacks, not once or twice, but three times a day. He’d divided the 3-D maze into old-fashioned police-force beats and assigned them to his somewhat-less-than eager staff.
Emma’s beat ran from Archeology to Near Eastern studies. She walked it Monday morning and Thursday on her way home.
Overall, Emma approved of Gene Shaunekker. In his five-year tenure he’d protected the library’s budget, made it a noncombatant in the worst of the chronic departmental turf-wars, and generally boosted staff morale, but sometimes he went overboard. The staff-as-police policy would peter out, probably in winter when weather took its toll on everyone’s schedules. Until then, Em got extra exercise, just like everyone else.
A tiny, open-walled e levator–little more than a wrought-iron basket ratcheting on greasy, black chains– carried Em down to Archeology. Her beat took her through book-walled corridors and past individually lighted carrels with wooden desks into which bored students had been carving graffiti for the better part of a century.
The library was quiet: mid-terms were history, finals an eternal month away. Archeology was home-away-from-home for a single student, a displaced engineer by the look of his muscular laptop and the thick textbooks piled beside his chair. Their eyes met after Emma had switched on the area lights; she felt guilty for disturbing him.
Heading up a ramp into the Near Eastern collection, Em’s thoughts were in her kitchen, trying to remember if she’d taken a chicken breast out of the freezer. Cooking had never been her favorite domestic chore and cooking for one was the pits. If it weren’t for the consequences, she’d eat pizza every night. With a little bit of effort, she remembered setting a pale, frozen slab on a dish in the refrigerator before she’d left this morning. Her heart and waistline were set for another healthy night.
The Near East appeared empty: no lights, no noise. She was tempted to take a shortcut back to the elevator, but resisted temptation. A woman had died and no one had noticed. Emma Merrigan stayed her course, flicking light switches and thinking about supper. She’d decided to cook her chicken in tomato sauce with fresh mushrooms when something caught her eye.
Against all expectation there was a student slumped face down on the desk in an unlit carrel. Falling asleep in the stacks was nothing extraordinary; Em had done it more than once a generation ago. Staying asleep was another matter. The chairs and desktops were too uncomfortable for more than forty winks at a time. Any longer and one risked a seriously stiff neck or sore back.
Unless one had died.
“Oh, God,” she prayed, in the manner of agnostics everywhere, before taking another step toward the carrel. “Please don’t let it be a body.”
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