When Chip finally rolled to the edge of his down comforter the next morning and opened his eyes, he took in the aftermath of a long night hacking in the hopefully legal sense of the word. There were coffee cups next to other coffee cups as if he had filled one without noticing that there was an already full cup right next to it. Wrappers and boxes in bright, shiny colors showed the effects of needing to eat without diverting the slightest brainpower from the task at hand. Chip’s laptop stood starkly above the detritus with the screen not even powered off, but set to minimum brightness for working in a darkened room and set to not put itself into sleep mode for fear of distracting from long moments spent pondering.
At the top of the screen was the most significant remnant of the work that he had done last night. The white on black plain text number 65 was the last output of the last program that he had run last night. Divorced from its context, it could have been the speed limit from any number of segments of road pulled from a geographic information database or a count of the unique matches for a certain search string on his computer hard drive. But Chip knew the context that latched meaning onto the plain, ordinary number. Don Mockson had not had an elevated heart rate on the night that he allegedly died of a stroke caused by surprise and excitement.
Apparently the country life had given Mockson a fair amount of cardiovascular health because his pulse rate while standing was that of a healthy, fit human. For someone who had just finished giving a speech and chanting, it was low enough that Chip needed to double check in the light of morning what he had discovered under the dark of night. He re-ran through his data and its sources, confirming the time codes of each individual frame and their sequencing into the pulse analysis program he had put together. He even took a quick video clip of himself and checked the results of the program against the antiquated watch-and-fingertips equivalent. Something seemed to be making him a bit nervous because his own pulse was elevated, but both methods agreed on just how elevated it was.
Perhaps what was raising his pulse was that this was the first piece of evidence, no matter how indirect, that confirmed his suspicion that Don Mockson had not died a natural death. Chip considered calling Allison immediately since this was exactly the piece of evidence she had been looking for to greenlight her hit piece on Buck Lemaire. He decided against it because he wasn’t sure that his findings could offer any validity in the eyes of the muckraking public. What was she going to do, label him a “forensic image analysis expert” when everything he knew had been gained from a few hours of reading articles online?
Instead of calling her, he pushed back from the computer and stood to stretch his back from the position where it had spent too many of the past twelve hours. As he bent and twisted and his spine cracked and popped, he also heard the pop of his front door opening and the chirpy “Hidy-ho!” that heralded the arrival of Lurlene unbidden once again.
“Come on up,” he offered although she seemed like she was going to do it anyways.
“Well, of course I will,” she tittered as she mounted the last few stairs and came into view. Chip’s already tight body tightened a bit more as he caught sight of what she was wearing. She unzipped a long down parka and dropped it casually on the floor, revealing a strappy gold lamé tank top on top of jeans so tight that they were more likely to be denim patterned tights. The outfit terminated in tall, red patent leather heels whose open toes framed toenails freshly painted the same shade of red as the shoes. Lurlene’s salon was branching out into manicures and pedicures and it looked like she had just helped herself to a trial run. Chip’s already elevated pulse began to race a bit more and despite the cold draft that blew through his patio door each morning, he started to sweat a little.
Sensing that she had had the desired effect, Lurlene smiled a wolfy grin and picked up a paper grocery bag and began sauntering straight at Chip where he stood. Trapped like a pubescent deer in the hormonal headlights of Lurlene’s display of flesh and bravado, Chip’s brain began to throw off thoughts and emotions in rapid fire succession. Why was she here? Why was she dressed like that? Did she have the wrong house? Surely Lurlene Simpson wouldn’t be coming here dressed like that to see him. Was she going to be cold? Should he offer her a blanket? Might that be too forward? He didn’t want to offend her if she was here on some innocent errand before she went to work in a rock and roll music video. Was that her class ring hanging way down on a thin gold chain around her neck?
Unable to cohere these thoughts into a verbal response, Chip just gulped and waited for her to say something. She kept coming closer, walking straight toward him, but with a slow walk that seemed to produce a great deal more side-to-side movement than forward progress. When Chip’s chest was in reach of her matching red-painted fingernails, she reached one out and rested it on Chip’s sternum and purred, “I brought you something.”
Chip gulped again and got out “Thanks, uh, what did you, uh, exactly, uh, bring for me?”
Lurlene smiled her wide, pearly smile and tossed the hair that had guaranteed her a seat on the homecoming court for four years in a row in high school. She almost giggled at the helpless look on Chip’s face but restrained her mirth and returned instead to the sultry stare she had been cultivating to match her sashay. “I brought you some of these, I know how you like them.”
Lurlene lifted up the paper bag and withdrew a small white paperboard box with a cellophane window on the top. Inside were two plump, round jelly donuts wreathed in a dusting of powdered sugar.
Chip’s already fiercely pumping blood went into overdrive as the hot flush of shame rose up his neck and face and completely engulfed his brain, temporarily wiping away any other natural human responses he may have been feeling just moments before. When he was in high school, Chip had been thoroughly plump. He wasn’t constitutionally given to fatness, so he couldn’t compete with some of Iowa’s truly enormous specimens, but the sedentary pursuits of geekdom and an easily indulged sweet tooth had left Chip with plenty of spare flesh. On display in the locker room, the most degrading of all high school locales, Chip had dealt with a constant barrage of snide remarks and casual inflictions of pain from the much more popular jocks.
One day, Chip had brought two donuts from the downtown bakery with him to school and he had kept them out of his lunch bag so that they wouldn’t be squashed. That day after an unremarkable period of post-gym class taunting, some of the jocks had followed Chip back to his locker. In his haste to get on to his next class, Chip had knocked the box of donuts from his locker onto the ground. One of the jocks had swooped in to recover the fumble and the whole gaggle of them had proceeded to help themselves to a share of the donuts he had been looking forward to since he had bought them that morning, laughing all the while and loudly testing out similes that involved fried dough and various cetaceans. Frayed already by the standard issue teasing, Chip’s nerve had snapped at seeing his much anticipated dessert violated by these hooligans and he began to cry, right there in the hallway in front of the sizable crowd that had gathered at the prospect of humiliation on display.
The sight of those same donuts in the box now perched on Lurlene’s suggestively manicured hand brought the pain and humiliation right back from where Chip had happily repressed it since the day it had happened.
“Is this some kind of a joke?” he sputtered in complete emotional confusion. The geek’s natural suspicion of any kindness from his social superiors reared up in Chip.
“No, what kind of joke would this be?” Lurlene asked as she indicated the entire scene with an elegant turn of the wrist. “I remember that you liked these and I wanted to bring you something nice.” As she said the last word, she turned up the purr in her voice in an effort to retake control of the emotional dynamics of the situation.
Chip looked around to make sure that there weren’t any obvious cameras filming this scene for later distribution as an online viral video. He couldn’t see any, so it was unlikely that there were any lenses large enough to make a video with enough production quality to survive repeated online sharing.
“You just remembered this as my favorite dessert from 10 years ago?” Chip was aghast at the cluelessness of the social elite. Lurlene hadn’t even remembered the incident with the donuts as anything more significant than an indicator of Chip’s pastry preferences. What Chip had borne as a secret shame for more than ten years, Lurlene had filed away in the part of her brain reserved for being a good hostess.
The potency of the moment had been blunted as Chip’s emotions ran out of steam and he collapsed down onto the sofa. Lurlene looked a little crestfallen that her sugary trojan horse had been turned away at the gate and she frowned a little bit.
“Are you on one of those diets now where you don’t eat anything white?” she asked in an attempt to make sense of his apparent shift in food preferences.
“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” Chip trailed off as he found himself unable to face the prospect of reliving the experience enough to tell the story of it.
“Well, I’ll just leave these here for when you change your mind,” she smiled, sure again that she would eventually breach the walls of his castle. She sank down to the couch very close to him and cooed “What have you been doing up here young man?”
Chip was too drained to answer anything but the straight truth. “I was processing video from the night that Don Mockson died. He didn’t look like he had a stroke.”
This was not what Lurlene had expected to hear, but she had a keen ear for gossip so she opened her eyes a little wider and shone a dazzling level of interest on Chip as she encouraged him to go on. He explained about the cameras in the city buildings and how they could be used to find someone’s pulse rate, finishing with what he had found in the files stored online. He had glossed over his minor transgressions on the way to getting those files and he was pleased that Lurlene didn’t pursue that line of inquiry directly, although he didn’t doubt that she had noticed his evasion and filed it away for future reference.
With no trace of seduction remaining, she asked “If Don didn’t die of a stroke, then what could have happened to him?”
“I didn’t say that he didn’t die of a stroke. The doctor could see on the scan where there was a ruptured blood vessel in his brain. The thing that I don’t believe is that it happened naturally because he was so excited by the happenings that night.”
“But if it didn’t happen naturally, then you think he was murdered? But why? He was just a sweet old man who happened to think very highly of plants and animals? Why would someone want to murder him?”
“I don’t have any idea right now. I don’t even know what he was planning to do that night after they finished chanting their slogan. Maybe there was something in what Don and his merry band of pranksters had planned that made someone very mad.”
“Well, we can always ask Rhonda.”
“You remember her. She was there that night sitting with Don and the rest of his friends.” Chip had forgotten that Lurlene had been in the back of the room that night as well and with her keen social senses could probably recite the list of people who had been present.
“I don’t remember her at all.”
“Sure you do. Medium height with dreadlocks and very nice skin.”
The description did nothing to jog Chip’s memory but he could easily pull up the video from the meeting and there she was, sitting with the other environmental activists, although she hadn’t registered on Chip’s consciousness as anything other than a stereotypical member of the collective that he had taken notice of.
“Do you know her?” Chip asked, surprised that a hair stylist and former homecoming queen would have any contact with a dreadlocked environmentalist.
“Of course I do. She’s one of my clients. Who do you think made her hair look so great? Plus, she’s really been responding well to our newest sea salt facial scrubs. Why? Did you think that no one who cares about the planet also cares about her appearance?”
After the roller coaster of a morning that Chip had been through, he hardly registered the sting of her completely accurate rebuke. He just asked meekly “Did you say we could talk to her?”
“Absolutely. Just follow me,” and Lurlene stood up fluidly from the couch and walked straight to where she had dropped her coat. The sight as she walked away revived Chip a little bit and he managed to get himself off the couch and moving toward the stairs.
Content to be back in control of their shared destination again, no matter how different it was from where she had originally intended to go with him, Lurlene grinned as she shrugged into her coat.
“Don’t forget your donuts.”