Murder by Breath
You’ve never seen a guy molt junk like my buddy Kyle Drange. The husks of his inventions cluttered every corner of the frat house. To get to any room, porch to attic, you had to suck in your gut, force out every particle of air, and sidestep teetering heaps like a crab navigating a maze of drowsy seagulls.
What was now The Hall had been a spacious common room, once, before Drange claimed it. Not that I'm up for any awards in cleanliness. But, when I see a guy cool his beers in the fish tank, hang laundry from fan blades, and swing on a pull-up bar to get in the kitchen, then I start to think I'm downright tidy.
Drange would catch some midnight fever of insight, reroute a hundred circuit boards, and fill up the house with sickly sweet soldering smoke that lingered for weeks. Of the four bathrooms in the mansion all but one ("Just hold it, man.") were jammed with spare parts. Boxes of capacitors squatted beneath rainbow coils of resistors. Shoe boxes brimmed with gutted sensors. The downstairs bathtub was dominated by a 3D printer and its itinerant buckets of goop. I can't tell you how many times I stepped on the teeth of an IC chip getting out of the shower or caught a glint of metal when I flushed.
His piles of discarded prototypes were the worst. He was a stubborn stump about maintaining the "environment" of his past projects.
"They’re not common files that can live in the cloud," he'd say. "It’s not the programs but these exact versions of the programs. It's the specific build of the OS. It’s the hardware. It’s the pattern of data fragmentation. It’s the state of the electrons." Past projects could be codified and archived, but by him alone. He got around to it once or twice a year.
His manic stages of creativity were balanced by epochs of laziness. He could be challenging the ghost of Da Vinci one night and the next be sprawled out in the common room's only chair, a massive easy boy, playing vintage games (as he had reprogrammed them to play) backwards. Stacks of gutted and tweaked technology scraped the ceiling and hid the walls. You couldn't even see the television anymore, except sitting, cocooned by his projects, in the easy boy. The chair was strictly first come first dibs. Bachelor bachelorens in our natural habitat.
Thanksgiving break was quiet. The guys had fled home as soon as classes let out. It was just me and Drange. I woke up at five a.m. to unbox Medieval Air Assault III. It was rumored to be a killer iteration of the game. I looked forward to passing my day tossing claypot bombs from the back of a Pegasus while, elsewhere, turkeys subdued my turbulent family. I needed something to post, something grabby to add to my blech, blarg, blog. A play-by-play analysis of this quirky game might appease my handful of readers.
Drange occupied the easy boy. He was firmly established. Three empty cereal boxes teetered beside him. He tipped the contents of a fourth into his mouth and mumbled a good morning. The television show’s host said, in a melodramatic quaver, that the all-day Mystery Marathon would continue after a word from their sponsors.
So much for my plans.
I offered the merest suggestion to Drange that he might make it a touch more livable around here by cleaning up some of his precious prototypes while he feasted.
He trudged to his room. Cereal hung from his ever-present chin stubble. Clutter trembled in his wake. I thought about hopping on the chair, but it would have been grotesquely warm and an escalation with Drange was not a light contest to enter into. He returned with a dented, rust-orange toolbox and set it on the chair. Inside clustered every possible data and power port imaginable. He plugged a cord that snaked from the back of the toolbox into an overpopulated surge protector under the television. The toolbox rattled to life. It vibrated with pent-up energy. He rolled up his bathrobe sleeve and reached into a nearby pile. A layer of dust came off a slate-era tabloid. It had heavy modifications. He cracked open the cover and connected it, in several places, to the toolbox. A low whine filled the room. The tabloid’s display flickered. I imagined the toolbox sucking out its soul. After the screen went dark, he set it aside.
"See?" I said. "That wasn’t so hard."
"There are some inventions here, Newel," he said, "if you knew what they could do, you might not be so eager to have me pull them apart."
"Your early work, you mean?" I had heard much, but never yet seen evidence of, his formative period. That stage of his came before I joined the fraternity and accepted the honorable profession of the lifelong student. "No one’s written about them yet, have they?"
"None of these has been properly brought to light. The larger public isn’t ready for them, but telling a few stories won’t spoil my secrets." He rooted through the piles, cradling machines as he re-stacked them. There wasn’t a casing or control panel that hadn’t been busted open and modified. "They don’t all work, Newel. Not at all. A puzzle is forever. Solutions are such a dreary bore."
Dreary bore? Who talks like that. He really must have been up all night watching that marathon, soaking up its cozy rhythms. The television droned on as the next mystery began. Drange ignored it.
He dislodged an ungainly chrome lattice that bucked in his grip like a giraffe coming to its feet. "Here's a de-gravitizer. It negates gravity in the same way that a Faraday cage neutralizes electromagnetic fields. Theoretically."
He collapsed the lattice and let it slip between piles. "Still working on that one."
He was stalling. If I could keep him on task he might make some actual progress.
"Can I help?"
He shook his head, reached into a dark corner, and pulled out a joystick riddled with buttons. "Remember Matchbox cars? This controls an orbital micro space ship that launched with the University's payload last year."
"What’s that have to do with Matchbox cars?"
"I replaced those tiny wheels with pneumatic thrusters."
"And there’s one of these in orbit?"
"A fleet. Ready and waiting."
"A refill of air." Drange delved into the stacks again and again, each time with more animation. The hall began to fill up.
I kept scooting further to the side.
"Here's a coolstalk—ah!—a multidrone. And a 64-channel memory stimulator. And this—I’d almost forgotten."
He pushed between swaying stacks and eased out a bag of scuba gear. Out of it he pulled: a clock, a tablet, an oxygen tank, and a diamond. The diamond caught and tossed the light. It was the real thing. The clock was in the form of an antique wind-up, but looked printed; I recognized the homogenous tint of 3D printer goop. A breathing apparatus coiled around the oxygen tank.
"Didn't know you were a diver. I suppose the gem is sunken treasure?"
"It's not for diving."
"Ok, I'll bite. What's the story?" I had written about his inventions before. They made for lively commentary. Much better than writing about a video game.
Drange lined up the gear between us on the carpet. "This," he said, "is all that's left of the ‘Cupertino Killer.’"
It was part of recent Silicon Valley lore. A few years back, engineers kept dropping dead at some prestigious company. Far as I knew they never caught the guy who did it.
"A cheery piece for the holidays," I said. My blog had grown predictable. It could use a mystery. I set my phone to record. "All right, weave away, talespinner."
"What about this ‘rampant heap of junk?’ Are you suggesting that we leave it in this barbaric condition?"
I sighed. He had me.
"It would be good to get the details down," he said, "now that my memory is fresh on it again. Without it, a record of my inventions would be incomplete.
"You didn’t know me before I had the reputation for cracking intractable security problems. I slogged in obscurity before making any real progress. This was my first big chance.
"When I first arrived in San Francisco, the summer before my first semester, I took a room at the edge of the Inner Sunset. My window looked out over Golden Gate Park. Wasn’t long before I spent more time out than in. Every day I walked. I dictated my designs and by the time I was home the printouts were dry and ready to test."
"You sent jobs to your 3D printer while you walked?"
"Navigating groves of eucalypti and madmen encouraged my imagination to percolate."
Percolate. His choice of words made me want to brew a pot of coffee. I didn’t dare break his flow.
"I fabricated anonymous prototypes. Never knew who I worked for. They never knew me. It was no way to build a career, but it paid the rent and kept me sharp. That’s how I became involved with Diamond Wind."
"That’s the company where the engineers were murdered?" Diamond Wind was one of the first tech companies to break ground in the orchards of Silicon Valley. A big deal outfit. I had no idea what for.
"Correct. Their lead manager, they called her the Queen, tracked me down through formidable layers of anonymity. A design of mine had been used by her employees, she said, when they met trouble. This clock. My stomach still frosts at the thought."
He handed me the clock. From the face of it, the clock tracked years, months, weeks, and days as well as hours and minutes. He lifted the clock’s smooth shell. Row upon row of gears lurked like the patient teeth of a predator.
"You sure it’s okay I write about this?"
He shrugged. "Fine by me. I was surprised to find that engineers at the top of their field, in a company like that, outsourced their work; but it felt good to be . . . of value. I was crushed that I might have been responsible for a death in some way. A curious mix of emotions. Did you know that emotions are—"
"What was that about the Queen?" I had to keep this story on track. Drange had a tendency to explore every culvert and never quite make it to the end of the road.
"What did she look like? Early thirties. Dark clothing. Pearls. Big, brown eyes that swam in a pool of shadows. A severely-angled bob that made her pale neckline dive like a swan into summer waters. How am I doing?"
"Drifting into romance are we?"
"Now that would be a story." Drange winked. "But, alas, no. The Queen intercepted me during one of my afternoon walks, over there by the bocce run. Thought she was a lost tourist. She introduced herself and apologized for breaking the veil of anonymity. I bristled, but decided I might as well hear her out.
"‘You will be acquainted with our troubles at Diamond Wind,’ she said. She had an English accent that made everything sound vital."
Drange had a faux English accent that made everything sound faulty. He angled his nose higher as he settled into his routine of recounting the conversation.
"‘Troubles? You mean the murders,’ I said. They'd been all over the news. No conclusive cause of death or motive to be found. And no killer.
"‘I need your help.’
"‘Me? I’m no detective.’
"‘It involves a device you designed.
"‘So hire me. Through the usual channels.’
"‘It needs to be more discreet than that.' That caught my attention. She pressed on, 'Our security has been breached. Not only have we had those unfortunate deaths, but two employees have disappeared.’
"‘I don’t know. They left behind an unusual . . . device. I traced its design to you. That wasn’t easy. When I discovered that your expertise is security, I knew you were either an accomplice or at least possessed a clue. I had to meet you. I’m prepared for the worst.’ She gestured to the trees ahead of us and behind. We were shadowed by what seemed to be a classic cadre goons in trench coats.
"I recognized the threat, of course, but more than that I saw an opportunity. I'd been longing to prove myself, to find a worthy challenge that would hightlight my abilities.
"She glanced over her shoulder at an unkempt man shambling through the brush, one of the park’s many denizens. She lowered her voice. ‘Is there somewhere we can talk?’
"I gestured to the path. ‘This is my office.’
"The Queen kept pace with me and made a show of shutting down her phone. I did the same. Her security detail kept their distance.
"‘I don’t know anything about how my designs are used,’ I told her. ‘But maybe if you tell me what happened . . . ’
"She hesitated for only a moment.
"‘You should know,’ she said, ‘that I have never married, never had kids. I live at the office. We all do. It’s the culture at Diamond Wind. Opportunities are global and come at all times of the day and night. My team is on call around the clock. The penthouse that crowns the Diamond Wind complex is a castle—literally—built on top of a skyscraper. Our walls are stone, but inside we have every modern amenity. It houses eighteen engineers, two mathematicians, and a physicist–’
"‘Sounds like the setup to a joke.’
"‘I wish it were, Mr. Drange. There’s also my personal secretary, a receptionist, three guards, two maids, a cook, and a janitor. The floors below keep their own staff and commute home in the usual way. The castle is segregated from the rest of the world not only by our superior level of commitment, but by airlocks and biometric passcodes. It’s tight. No one comes or goes without leaving a very real trail of blood.
"‘The employee that has been in the castle the longest was the one who commissioned your work, Darcy Dillard, the secretary. She was fresh out of high school when she was hired, but she was full of enthusiasm and intelligence, and quickly moved up the ranks. She has been the personal secretary of the last four managers of the castle. She was my personal secretary as well. She was enormously self-educated. She sported a gorgeous head of—what would you boys call them?—mahogany curls. She carried herself with an ample spirit of generosity, and, though she had been with us for two decades, she was not yet forty. However, to see her without makeup you’d think she was a good bit older. She rarely let that mask slip. The price of hard work, I suppose. She never took a vacation, yet knew a dozen languages, had read every book or paper I mentioned, had obtained more patents than anyone in the division and, on top of all that, was an avid scuba diver. I was forever stumbling across her gear. We were lucky that she has been content to hold the position for so long. The secretary of Diamond Wind was remembered by everybody who visited the castle.
"‘She had one problem. She . . . well, she slept around. You can imagine that for a woman like her it wasn't hard to seduce the kind of cloistered young men who are drawn to our profession. When she was married, it was quiet—for a while. Since she’s been widowed we’ve had drama after drama. A few months back I had hopes that she would reign in the libido, as she had become engaged with Ed Talbot, our physicist; but she dumped him cold for Martin Graves, one the engineers who later died so mysteriously. Now, Talbot—Are you with me, Mr. Drange? Good.—He was a fantastic mind, but something of a drinker. He had a nervous breakdown over their split. He retreated to his quarters and barely left them—until yesterday. Secretary Dillard’s romances gave me such a headache. I was forced to fire her.’
"Fog settled around us, erasing tree tops. The Queen’s goons drew closer.
"She waved them back. ‘I told you how smart Dillard was. That’s what got her in trouble. It led her to put her nose in other people's business. Half of her patents paralleled the work of others in the castle. Accusations flew, and not a few engineers quit, but as her results were always superior . . . management looked the other way. I really had no notion of how far she had carried her rivalry until I came across her in one of the restricted labs.
"‘The castle’s facilities sprawl. It is a maze of unused corridors and research turrets. Last week—Wednesday—I couldn't sleep. I had agreed to be an experimental test subject for an energy booster we’re developing. Bad idea. It left me lying awake until three in the morning. I decided the night was lost and got up to have a look at the stars. I didn't have any reason to wake the staff so I let them sleep. Normally I would have roused at least a handful of employees to help me get my day started. That morning I made for the turrets, alone.
"‘I came to a restricted lab that had been sealed since the death of my predecessor. It is the highest turret in the castle and takes the shape of a diamond while the others are round. It is where the inauguration ceremony for our leaders is held. I did not have good memories of the place and wasn’t planning on stargazing from there. But as I passed, a beam of light came from under the door. My first reaction was to suspect corporate espionage. Even our defunct labs hold enough secrets to be quite a prize for any entity with the nerve to risk it. But who could have broken in? I checked my alerts. The security log was clean. Had to be an inside job. I thought of calling the night guard—in a minute he would be by my side—but I also knew we could not afford it. The thief could be transmitting sensitive data even as I stood there. Dangerous as it was, he had to be stopped, or, at least, interrupted. I keyed the entry and slipped in.
"‘In the lab stood the stark naked silhouette of a woman. She had enormous hair. It could only be secretary Dillard. The strangeness of it made me pause. I stayed in the shadows and watched. No one but I should have had access to the lab, but I hadn’t changed my predecessor’s passcode. Dillard must have had it all along. Careless of me. Dillard stretched up her hand to a device mounted into the ceiling above her head—it turns out this was the clock you designed. I inched my phone from my pocket and took a picture of the infraction. The fool thing flashed. Dillard jerked her head and saw me standing in the doorway. She grabbed down the clock and hunched over it.
"‘I shouted dreadful things. I have never been so flustered. "This is how you repay our trust?" I said, when I could form a sentence. "You are fired. So fired. Pack your things. Now."
"‘She stammered as though she might protest, then picked up her clothing and edged past me with her proud head hanging low. I was too angry to trust myself, so I let her leave without saying more or thinking to take the clock. When I stopped shaking, I logged into one of the lab’s terminals and barred her account. I changed the access codes to all the labs. It was only then that I recognized what experiment she had been performing: Diamond Wind’s inauguration. It was a ceremonial rite of passage that we leaders of Diamond Wind are made to suffer. It’s an embarrassing part of our heritage. I couldn’t understand why she’d bother. But, it explained her nudity.’
"‘Sounds weird all right,’ I said. ‘We should review it.’
"The Queen shrugged. ‘I do not see what good it would do. It was not what she was doing that bothered me so much as that she had been in there at all. Who knows how long she had been snooping around the labs? I was so angry. But that was not the end of it, I rose to go, finally exhausted enough by this scenario to fall asleep. Dillard stood in the doorway.
"‘ "My reputation," she said in a strained voice. "It will be ruined. I’ve given my best years to this company. I could have made more elsewhere. Don’t think I didn’t have offers. If you must see me leave, let me give my two weeks notice. I couldn't bear the shame of being cast out. Not before all the people I’ve worked with for so long."
"‘Not before all the people you slept with, I thought. "You do not deserve it, Dillard." But, I thought of how harmless the experiment was and that made me soften. She could not be trusted any longer, that was clear—but maybe I could go a little lighter. I couldn’t imagine deriving any satisfaction from stripping to the nude in an empty lab in the middle of the night. People, really. But, I did not have to ruin her because of her sexual deviances.
"‘ "You have broken trust," I said. "There is nothing for you here. Still, you are one of the longest standing employees the company has had. I would hate to sully our reputation just to blemish yours. However, two weeks is too long. You have until the end of this week to quit. I leave the announcement of it to you."
"‘ "That's two days away." She knelt like she was going to pray or kiss my ring. "I need a week."
"‘The heat rose to my face. I could not believe she was still pressing me. "End of the week," I told her. I sealed the lab behind us. "Consider yourself lucky."
"‘She slunk away, her face collapsed under her precious tangled waterfall of curls.
"‘The next day, Dillard acted as though nothing had happened. She even seemed to have made peace with Talbot, the physicist to whom she had been engaged. I made no mention of her indiscretion and wondered how she would choose to break the news of her departure. No doubt it would send a shock of heartbreak through our little stud farm, but they would soon get over it and be better off. It would be a relief. By Friday afternoon, however, she had not made any announcements. I set out to confront her. She was not in her quarters. I crossed paths with Talbot. He stank of whiskey and cowered from me like I was the angel of death, crab-crawling and muttering how sorry he was.
"‘ "Go sleep it off," I told him. "Look at yourself. You should be sorry. We will talk about how to get you help when you are sober."
"‘He stared at me and howled like a lunatic. "I'm not drunk, your highness," he said.
"‘ "I can't have you wandering around the labs like this. Go home. Check in with reception on your way out. Have them send up Ms. Dillard."
"‘ "This is my home and Darcy . . . she’s gone," he said.
"‘I had not been notified of her departure. Nor had I expected anything so sudden. After all, she had been obsessed with appearances—or so I had been led to believe. "Where did she go?"
"‘ "She's gone. Not in her room, not in the office, not in the lab. Gone." Talbot quavered, his muscles trembling, while I, shocked by his hysteria, summoned the guards. I had him escorted back to his room. He would be useless until he had slept it off. I left one guard with Talbot and instructed the other guards to help find Dillard. According to the records, no one had passed through the gate. That meant she had to be on castle grounds. I couldn’t yet entertain the idea that she had discovered a way to break through the gate’s security. We searched every lab, all the many alcoves, and the turrets.’
"‘Turrets? Could she have jumped?’
"‘Impossible. Not only are they are sheltered castle turrets, but the exterior is encased in clear, bulletproof polymers. Not so much as a puff of air can get in or out. We lost a precious day of work searching everywhere. She had not left the castle. There’s only one exit, always manned. Security would have logged it. No one comes or goes without their biometrics stamped in half-a-hundred ways. If she got around the exit codes, then our security was in terrible danger. Yet all her belongings were still in her room: her pictures, her passport, her phone, her clothes, and several revealing personal items I would have found quite embarrassing myself.
"‘We searched the place again, locking down one section at a time in case she was shadowing us as we moved, but there was truly no sign of her. The castle’s many layers and Medieval design confounded the effort. We scoured every corner without finding a clue. The security teams on the floors below had seen nothing unusual. We are always reluctant to involve the outside world—it brings so much scrutiny—so we have yet to file a missing persons report. We’ll have to do that soon. Unless you can help. Will you come with me?’
"To tell you the truth, Newel, I had no idea at that point what might have happened at Diamond Wind, or how my clock might have been involved, but I longed to see the facility and to prove myself. ‘I’ll help if I can.’
"‘Very good. I have a car.’ She signaled to her men and we cut through the fog to the street. A limousine awaited. One goon joined the chauffeur in front and the other slid in back with me and the Queen. We threaded out of the city and were soon speeding down the 101 towards Silicon Valley.
"‘That wasn’t the end of it,’ she said. ‘Through the weekend Ed Talbot was terribly ill—withdrawal—talking to himself in a slur and whipping around violently as if he expected to catch something hiding behind him. One of the guards agreed to watch him through the night. On Monday the guard woke to the sound of Talbot fleeing. The guard pursued, cornered him in the turret lab, and called for backup. By the time I arrived, he was gone. There is no way out of that lab. The ventilation grates are minimal. There is simply no way out.’
"‘Inside the lab lay a pile of his clothing. The clothes were absolutely filthy. I had them incinerated. I cannot imagine living like that. Disgusting. He left behind a fresh printout of your clock. In it was the Maxwell diamond. Dillard would have had access to it; she must have given it to him. Now we have two missing persons: Ed Talbot and Darcy Dillard. We are going to have to overhaul our security from the ground up. We’ll have to gut the labs to discover their escape route. It will be enormously expensive and could be the end of the castle. It will certainly mark the end of my tenure, unless I can shed some light on this. I have tried everything. Then I thought to investigate the clock. It led me to you.’
"I boggled at the significance of my clock, Newel. The job had come with odd specifications: it couldn’t use any electronics, it had to be analog with self-winding parts that could run for months, even years without intervention; it had to hold a walnut-sized object that would be lowered when the alarm went off. I tried to puzzle the evidence together while we walked in silence. I was determined to find the underlying truth. The secretary was gone. The engineer was gone. The poor, drunken engineer had loved the untrustworthy secretary, but had also come to hate her, I imagined, for leaving him. He had been found in low spirits right after her disappearance. He had later disappeared himself. They had both used a clock of my design, in conjunction with a rare diamond. That's what I had to work with—and yet something was missing.
"‘We must perform that experiment,’ I said, ‘the one that your secretary risked her career to conduct.’
"‘It is a meaningless totem.’ The Queen brushed the hair from her face to look at me squarely. ‘The sentimental idiocy of a past age.’
"‘How does the experiment go?,’ I said.
"‘It is based on an ancient poem. The first and last lines gave us our name. "Diamond at the crown . . . keep you to the wind." Diamond Wind. There’s a longer version. Read the whole thing and see if you still want to bother.’
"She said a word to the goon up front and he handed a tablet back to her.
"‘Frankly, I am embarrassed by this custom of ours,’ the Queen said as she powered it on. She handed it to me warily. ‘I would not show you under normal circumstances.’"
Drange picked up the tablet from the carpet. It was a cunning miniaturization of more prevalent brands. "It contains a few pictures," he said, "from the investigation. The Queen let me keep it, after coding it to my thumbprint. Would you like a look?"
I admitted that I would.
Drange stretched his arms out to the mess around us. "Now you can appreciate why I maintain these artifacts. Here is the foundational experiment of the pioneers of Diamond Wind. The solemn rite passed from one leader to the next." Drange thumbed the tablet dramatically, but it didn't turn on. Not surprising to find its charge had gone, buried as it was for years in this mess.
My friend plugged the tablet into his toolbox. When it booted up, he thumbed it again and was quickly scrolling through photos. He flicked past a few snapshots of a woman with an incredible head of hair, like a mass of living hydras. She wasn't exactly beautiful, but I couldn't look away from her either. She exuded confidence. Drange flicked past a picture of her in the lab, bare-skinned hunched over the glowing terminal. He stopped when he reached a document and cleared his throat.
"Here we are. I’ll read it to you:
‘Diamond at the crown
Naked to the skin
So stop heaven
For a fixed amount
When time wears down
Keep you to the wind.’"
"Drange," I said. "You can’t be serious. You’re pulling my leg. That’s no experiment. What kind of ceremony is that?"
"The Queen was of your mind."
"It’s nonsense. Perihelion? What amount?"
Drange turned the tablet off. "You two would have had much to agree about. I asked her if she had performed the experiment.
"‘We all do,’ she said. ‘Every new manager must. It is in the bylaws, if you can believe it. But, no, I would not have my employees see me stark naked. I wore my undergarments and that was scandalous enough. It is supposed to stop the heavens. I felt nothing but goose prickles. Thank god it did not last long.’
"She explained that the experiment went back to the company’s founder, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. She kept emphasizing how he must have been crazy, that the actual experiment didn't do anything. She was fixated on the idea that the secretary had only been playing out a perverted power fantasy. I interrupted her.
"‘This experiment is an even more interesting mystery than the others. If I’m not mistaken, they are all related. I have to agree, your secretary was brilliant. She aspired to something greater than you imagine.’
"‘What are you talking about?’ the Queen said. ‘This experiment? It really is nothing but a joke from posterity.’
"‘I think it is very timely. Dillard must have thought so, too. Have you ever experienced shortness of breath while in the castle?’
"‘Yes.’ She knitted her brow.
"‘The murdered engineers asphyxiated, am I right?"
"She nodded slowly. ‘We never let that information leak. Did you guesss . . . or did you know?’
The goon beside her tensed.
"‘It is more than a guess and less than knowledge. I’ll be able to tell you more,’ I said, ‘once I perform the experiment myself.’
"She blushed. ‘You can’t be serious.’
"I assured her that I was.
"We arrived within the hour at the Diamond Wind campus. It is a city within a city. Have you been there? No? We rode up a long elevator that went directly to the castle gate, the sole entry point. I had expected a portcullis, but it was more akin to a bank vault. As promised, they made me draw blood to enter. It was, indeed, very labyrinthine and multilayered. The architects had been confined to using transparent plastics and gothic stone and nothing else. The company went back much further than modern technology. Several hundred years. James Clerk Maxwell’s keep had been imported, stone for stone from Scotland. It had been sealed in recent years with an impermeable micro-polymer to prevent decay and breaches of security. It was a closed system, save for the single biometric entrance. And that was sealed with an airlock. Even ventilation was fed by oxygen reserves. Talk about paranoia. From the turrets there was a wonderful view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the over-crowded valley below. I saw the appeal of living among those gothic stones; I, too, might never have returned to what seemed from up there to be a drab and mortal realm of shabby impermanence.
"I was sure, Newel, that there weren’t a handful of mysteries here, but only one. If I could interpret the experiment right I would find the key: I would discover what had become of secretary Dillard and the physicist Talbot; I would find out why the other engineers had died; I would learn why Dillard had gone to such lengths to perform Maxwell’s ritual.
"I was relieved to find that the diamond turret’s physical design gave many clues. It was aligned to the Earth’s magnetic field. Who ever had relocated the castle had taken pains to preserve the alignment. There were lode stones in the walls.
"The Queen brought my attention to a fixture in the ceiling. ‘That’s where we found your clock.’
"‘Does the experiment call for a clock? Does Maxwell specify a design?’
"‘There is no record of it.’
"A small hole in the center of the fixture let daylight in. Light filtered through the transparent material that coated the exterior. Maxwell had needed the sun for his experiment. ‘The inauguration was performed in early January.’
"‘How do you know that?’ the Queen said. ‘It is not public knowledge. Were you working with Dillard?’
"‘Not at all. The poem told me all I need to know. In early January the earth is at the perihelion—the point in its orbit when it passes closest to the sun.’ At this point the sun’s magnetic influence is at its strongest.
"‘May I see the diamond?’ I asked the Queen."
"She exchanged a glance with her goons. ‘I don’t think you need that.’
"‘What else has such strong optical and magnetic properties?’
"‘Diamonds are not magnetic, Mr. Drange.’
"‘It won’t hold a nail to its side, but a diamond with remanent magnetization contains a magnetic signature, an imprint of the Earth’s magnetic field from when the gem was formed.’
"‘What could that matter?’ The Queen grinned at one of her goons. ‘What will he say next?’
"‘What do you have to lose?’
"The Queen exchanged a more solemn glance with her goons and they produced a gorgeous diamond the size of a walnut. It wasn’t cut for decoration and still held much of its raw beauty.
"‘They stopped snickering when the diamond fit perfectly in the notch at the top of the clock.
"‘It could act as a key,’ I said. ‘The magnetic field it produces would be amplified by the neodymium magnets that run the clock.’ The diamond in the ceiling, at the perihelion would have produced a similar effect, but only once a year. Dillard must have needed a clock like mine to simulate the passage of the sun."
"What use was that?" I hated to interrupt, but I couldn’t see where this was going.
"She longed to perform the experiment whenever she wanted. She craved its benefit."
"And what was that?"
"Stopping the heavens."
I didn’t know what to say to that.
"You know my methods in such a project, Newel, to imagine myself as the electrons and see how they would flow. To get into the intent of the experimenters. What if it wasn’t an empty ritual? What if they really were trying to stop the heavens? Consider the accomplishments of the early founders. They were fabled to have done more in one lifetime than most could have done in twenty. They had succeeded in stopping time."
"Stopping time?" I said. "I thought you didn’t believe in superstitions."
"Maxwell was a genius. Like the Faraday cage, or my de-gravatizer—what if you could create a neutralizing field and . . . isolate yourself from time. Neutralize time."
"There is no ‘time field,’" I objected.
"Do you know everything about time, then?" Drange said. When I didn’t answer—and how could I?—he continued, "Obviously the Queen was not taking the experiment literally enough. Maxwell was the father of electricity and magnetism, Newel. He studied Faraday’s visions. Oh, the instructions are cryptic, but it has to be more than secret society theatrics. I was determined to follow step-by-step in the manner that the founders had intended.
"I set the clock to go off in forty-eight hours—if this worked, that was the longest I wanted to go without eating. I seated the diamond in the clock and the clock in the fixture. The walls were built with lodestones to direct the magnetic field in such a way that a place at the center would experience a cancellation. It was ingenious. I didn’t want to interpret the experiment my own way to mitigate embarrassment as the Queen had; I wanted to get it right. I began to strip.
"The goons grabbed me from either side, but the Queen called them off. ‘You have ten minutes. We’ll be on the other side of that door. I hope you know what you’re doing, Mr. Drange.’
"They sealed the lab behind them and I undressed. I stood in the center of the room under the clock. The diamond winked above me. There was only one thing that bothered me: instead of the turret being on the windy moors of Scotland the castle was ensconced, fed by central air conditioning. Not every factor was the same, but I had done the best I could. It was time to flip the switch.
"I can't believe you dropped your pants in front of a queen," I said.
"She wasn’t a queen. That was just her name."
"You weren’t at all afraid you’d disappear?"
"The secretary had found a way to survive the experiment. I would, too. An avid scuba diver that never took a vacation? She was using that oxygen for something else entirely." He tapped the tank.
"To the Queen’s irritation, I had asked the goons to haul up Dillard’s scuba gear. Somehow it was the key to her many extraordinary accomplishments. I started the clock and listened to it tick, waiting.
"A subtle light flashed over me. The hair on my skin rose. It grew completely silent. Only my clock moved. It counted steadily down. I walked to the door and saw the Queen and her goons on the other side of the window. They were as still as mimes. A current of subtle light ran between us, covering the interior of the room. It ran like a cage from the clock to all corners. An inch from the guard’s nose, a fly was suspended in mid-flight. Time had stopped out there. Smirk if you like. It’s true.
"I became lost in my thoughts. This was incredible. My attention was pulled back by an aching in my bladder. I suppressed the urge to eliminate. I didn’t want to leave behind the mess that Talbot had. My clock counted down the time. I found paper and pen and wrote. I filled a ream of paper. After twenty hours I was more than thirsty, hungry, and tired. I had become dizzy and forgetful. I was repeating earlier observations. When I tried to reread my notes, the words swam before me. There were still twenty-eight hours to go, but my breath was ragged. Each draw of air came harder than the last. Why was my breath so short, Newel?"
"You were panicking?"
"We breath in oxygen and we exhale . . ."
"Carbon dioxide. You were suffocating yourself."
"The old leaky stones of the turret had been sealed air-tight. The windows were covered with highly polished plastics."
"What about the ventilation system?"
"The fans that drove it had stopped, as had all the rest of the world outside my room. My exhaled air built up around me."
"Couldn’t you just leave the room—open the door?"
"It was locked from the outside."
I took a deep breath. Even the cloistered air of our fraternity smelled sweet in comparison.
"I put my face to the ventilation grates," Drange said. "They soured as well. I put my nose to the crack under the door. That was better—for a while.
"I was entombed. I swatted at the clock, but the cage of light repelled me. I would have to wait until the clock’s alarm lowered the diamond out of position. My air would not last so long.
"There was no way out of the lab. No one would come and save me. To the rest of the world no time was passing at all. I studied the Queen’s face through the lab door’s window. It had not moved a twitch. A strand of her hair curled in suspension. The fly still hung in the air. Its wings were iridescent."
"The tank, Drange. Did you remember the tank?"
"Exactly. Dillard’s oxygen tank is what saved me. I waited out the remaining hours sipping pure oxygen. A bell sounded—the clock’s alarm—and the diamond clattered out of position. I have never heard such a welcome sound. The gears in the clock lowered the diamond and the lattice of light fell away. The Queen blinked and then gasped for air. I had used up theirs as well. She and the guard staggered, clutching their throats. Below, far away, the fans echoed through the ventilation shafts. Soon the air would be recycled, but it might come too late. I was weak, but I managed to pull myself over to them. I beckoned to them. One of the goons struggled to open the door. He coiled to pounce on me—I could see the madness of being without breath had taken him. We wrestled. I forced the oxygen mask over his face and in a moment he stopped struggling and sat up, perplexed. He pulled the Queen over, and the other guard. We shared the oxygen until the air cleared. I was alive, barely. Had I drawn from the oxygen all along I would have been fine. As it was, I took days to recover. When we were alone again, I told the Queen what had happened.
"‘That's not possible,’ she said. ‘You seriously want me to believe you stopped time?’
"‘The engineers died because carbon dioxide spread out from the turret via the ventilation shafts. There was no turbine to draw the air, only Dillard’s lungs, so her carbon dioxide didn’t disperse quickly. She must have been in the turret with time stopped for weeks to have displaced enough air to endanger them. Does she have so many oxygen tanks?’
"‘She has dozens. All sizes. When I grew tired of finding them underfoot, for a while I offered to store them in the turret here for her.’
"We locked eyes.
"‘I’m sure that was my idea,’ she said.
"‘Think of how much the company accomplished in the past. Think of how much your secretary accomplished.’
"‘Tut,’ the Queen said, ‘You find stopping time more plausible than a woman excelling? Typical.’
"I emphatically shook my head. ‘Either way you look at it, she was extraordinary. When you discovered her in the turret that night, she begged to stay on. Why? So that she could stop time once more. There was something she had to try, and for that she needed access to the turret. So she made up with Talbot, her old lover, and enlisted his help.’
"‘But what does this speculation of yours have to do with my main concern? How did she disappear?’
"‘Talbot gave her access to the turret. She showed him how to stop time, but carelessly left the clock set too long. There wasn’t enough oxygen for them both, even with a tank. Other lovers might have chosen to die together, but not these. They must have fought. He overpowered her and kept the oxygen for himself.’
"The Queen shuddered. ‘No. It’s full of holes. I’m afraid the want of air has addled your faculties. We found no body.’
"Talbot came out of stopped time with Dillard dead. He needed to hide the body. He let the air cycle, set the clock again, and stepped out of the room. He could have done it again and again, as many times as he needed until her skin had decomposed. It would hardly have taken any real time. There would be nothing left but brittle bones. And hair. These he could have disposed of in many ways. When you came across him, he wasn’t drunk at all, but suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning. Search his quarters for her remains.’
"The Queen humored me and ordered his room searched. A bag, deep in his closet, held Dillard’s hair. Another bag was full of white powder. It might have been pulverized bone. I urged her to test it against Dillard’s DNA. The Queen decided on a simpler explanation: Talbot had been a drug addict and a spy and had helped Dillard escape. Dillard had shaved her head for disguise. The Queen’s solution didn’t solve the riddle, as she soon realized.
"‘But then what of Talbot?’ She asked herself, flustered. ‘This is impossible.’
"‘In my version of events,’ I said. ‘Talbot performed the experiment again, but set the duration at its maximum: a thousand years.’
"‘No,’ the Queen said. ‘That would have caused the deaths of anyone present in the castle. He would have used up all the oxygen.’
"‘Only if he had chosen to stay alive.’
"‘Suicide?’ She shook her head. ‘All this murder by breath. Such an imagination. You should work for us. Or better yet, for the competition. One thing I’m sure of: you’re not responsible for my troubles.’
"I suggested that she test the bacteria in the turret for generational drift. Or, she could perform the experiment herself, correctly this time. She would have nothing to do with it. She cut me a check for my time and we descended. The drab world approached too fast."
"‘One last thing, Mr. Drange,’ she said as the limousine pulled along side of Golden Gate Park. ‘I am not saying you are right about any of this, but . . . why would Dillard risk exposure of her secret to bring in an accomplice? What would be the point of stopping time once more?’
"‘Why indeed? She had grown tired of the limitations of the turret. She longed to stop time and roam the world. To be free. Perhaps she planned to use the clock to make a portable version of the turret, to—’
"The Queen laughed long and loud and I saw that she was beautiful. She pressed a cold stone into my hand. ‘Thank you for the entertainment, Mr. Drange. I needed that.’
"‘I can’t take this. It was Maxwell’s—’
"‘We can afford it, believe me,’ she said. ‘It’s time Diamond Wind left the past behind.’
"And with that, her limousine pulled away. I haven’t heard from her since. If you pass the Diamond Wind campus these days, the turret and all the rest of the castle has been removed. It’s another bleak modern complex."
Drange passed me the diamond. It must have been worth a fortune. It caught the light of the television and made me feel like I was gazing into infinity. Elegance incarnate.
"You learned how to stop time," I said, "then forgot all about it in this mess of yours? I don’t think so. Here’s my version of events: the woman with the magnificent hair was some old girlfriend whose photo and bad poetry you happened to have on that tablet, the diamond is an heirloom, the clock is a clock, and the oxygen tank is a respirator for that hospital you were working for last May."
Drange shrugged. "And how do you explain all those items being stored in a bag together?"
"I may be a packrat, Newel, but I’m organized."
"The Drange I know would have picked up where the secretary left off. He would have wanted to make that portable version himself."
Drange clapped his hands. "That’s just it. I pursued it in my spare moments for years, on and off, then less and less, for nothing worked. I couldn’t recreate the geometry of the turret or divine the magnetic composition of its walls. Now that they’ve dismantled the castle the secret is lost."
"Are you sure you need a turret at all?"
Drange stared past me. He absently picked at the cereal stuck to his chin stubble. "Sometimes the simplest solutions . . ."
I stretched out on the floor and drifted to the edge of sleep as he regaled me with the exploits one could pursue if only time could be stopped. I enjoy a lively fantasy as much as anyone, but I was not used to getting up so early. I couldn’t stay awake.
I woke to a cheer from the television. A bell rang on Drange’s clock. Something was wrong. I couldn’t draw a breath. The common room windows had been thrown open wide. The common room! It was . . . clean. Drange knelt beside me, leaning on the oxygen tank. A diamond was held to his forehead by some newly printed contraption. A crown. That was all he wore. He offered me the respirator. In the space of my nap he had grown the most magnificent beard. I had a thousand questions, but first, I breathed.