Was that old man Blake? Maybe, maybe not, Ashley thought, as they continued moving in his direction, all the while watching for anyone lingering in the area.
For what it was worth, she didn’t notice anyone suspicious, not in the open, and not behind the trees on either side of the bike path or the green (though she went on imagining eyes and worse behind them). Meanwhile the man on the bench didn’t visibly respond to their approach. Maybe it was someone else, and maybe he was just careful that way, controlling his reactions the way she and Logan had long ago learned to do.
Ashley noticed something else. The frailty suggested by his thinness, that fisherman’s hat, had made her expect an old man, but the hair beneath the hat was dark, and up close he looked to have the skin of a twenty something, which made it seem very unlikely that the color came out of a bottle.
As they neared the man in the fisherman’s hat casually shifted to the right of the bench, as if that were more comfortable for him. That cleared the way for them to seat themselves next to him without saying a word.
“Blake?” Logan asked quietly without looking at him.
“That’s right,” the man in the fisherman’s hat said as he continued to look straight ahead. “Which means that you two must be George and Sam.”
“That’s right,” Logan said back as a jogger ran past, not paying them any mind.
“It’s good to see you,” Blake said, sounding as well as looking young. Ashley also noted that Blake didn’t sound like the other people they’d heard speaking in the city, or for that matter, a Southerner at all. And, well, she wasn’t sure what she’d expected—a tic-ridden neurotic?—but it struck her that he didn’t display any obvious signs of mental strain from having carried the burden of his investigation all these years.
The man sitting next to her actually struck her as fairly laid-back. But not so laid-back that he hadn’t come armed, the bulge of a gun beneath his jacket just one clue to that whole other side of himself he was probably careful about showing to strangers—Blake the relentless pursuer of Melanie’s killers a secret life behind some façade of normality. Or what passed for it in a world in which “normal” didn’t really seem to exist.
“So,” Blake asked. “What brought you to my blog?”
“As it happened, we were engaged in an investigation of our own, aspects of which coincided with yours,” Logan said first. “We thought that maybe you could help us.”
“I’d be happy to,” Blake said. “What you sent me—that looks like just the kind of break I’ve been waiting five years for.”
“Your blog was a break for us also,” Logan said. “And we’re hoping you know more than you’ve said there.”
“I try not to make any claims I can’t actually prove, so naturally I’ve been sitting on quite a number of things I haven’t actually mentioned there,” Blake said. “What is it that you think I can help you with?”
“Your theory about what this is all about, and who’s behind all of this, for starters,” Logan said.
“Given what you’ve supplied . . . I’d think that you know more than I do,” Blake said. “A lot more. You came by all those documents, after all.”
“The source is . . . problematic in ways we would prefer not to explain just yet,” Logan said. “We don’t know how the guy fits into any of this, and that makes a difference here. The thing is, we got to this through a totally different investigation.”
A pair of bicyclists, a man and a woman, went by laughing. As the trio on the bench fell silent Ashley wondered how Blake would react, if what they’d shown him would be sufficient inducement to get him to tell what he’d been holding back.
The bicyclists rolled out of sight.
“All right,” Blake said, “let’s start with the possibility of outside involvement, beginning with the tangibles. Like that unusual equipment Melanie saw in the room that she couldn’t trace to anybody, or even identify. And which I still can’t trace or identify, five years later. Not as a brain imager or anything else.
“But clearly it did exist. Which raises the question, who the hell built it? Maybe the thing was put together at Povenmire, somehow, by those other research assistants working directly under Dr. Hamilton, but it would take bigger resources than he or any other mere professor at that school has to secretly build a machine which can do the kinds of things that white box very likely does. Which means building it required outside funding of some kind at the very least, on top of the grants officially funding that research project.
“Or, more likely, somebody else produced the equipment and provided it to them for the research. One reason to think so’s the evidence of outside interest in Hamilton’s research that Melanie came across. Earlier in the month, before she caught onto any of this, she overheard Dr. Hamilton talking on the phone to Sebastian de Ruyter.”
The name didn’t mean anything to Ashley. She looked at Logan, and from the expression on his face guessed that it didn’t mean anything to him either.
“Who’s that?” Logan asked.
“One of the world’s more respected neuroscientists,” Blake said. “Actually, you can call him a star in his field.
“Melanie had encountered his work earlier in her studies, and was disappointed when she heard that he’d visited the campus without her even hearing about it, because usually when someone like that swings by a college campus it’s kind of an event.
“Naturally, she asked Dr. Hamilton about it.”
“What’d he have to say?” Logan asked.
“He seemed surprised that she knew, but told her that de Ruyter had just been passing through the area and decided to drop by and check out the very study she was assisting—and that he seemed pretty proud of his association with the famous scientist.”
“So you think this de Ruyter is in on it, somehow?” Ashley asked.
“It seems quite likely, especially given that his areas of concern include brain imaging and the study of emotional response,” Blake said.
“The visit by de Ruyter . . . was that also in her diary?” Ashley asked.
“You didn’t post that page on the blog, though.”
“No. The connection . . . it didn’t seem strong enough in itself to be worth advertising. So I held it back.”
“Could you tell us how you got the diary in the first place?” Ashley asked. “I mean—”
“It’s all right,” Blake said. “She was my girlfriend at the time. I thought she’d be more than that, that after she finished school we’d . . .”
But then events intervened.
“She thought she’d spotted a strange man leaving her building the night before she disappeared, and suspected her place had been broken into. I thought she was getting paranoid, but . . .”
While his eyes were covered, she somehow knew that they’d become moist, and then Ashley thought she understood it all, why he had condemned himself to living this way. He thought that if he’d taken her fears seriously, she might still be alive—and he was bearing the guilt of that.
But it wasn’t just guilt. He’d loved her, she believed that, and Ashley found herself feeling for him.
“Never mind,” Blake said. “You didn’t come to hear that, I’m sure.
“So let’s put all that together. The equipment that we can’t account for, but which probably came from a secret supplier from somewhere else; the interest by a prominent, outside scientist who seems to have been let in on the secretive stuff Dr. Hamilton was doing; and it’s easy enough to picture a larger, ongoing program, possibly spread out at a large number of institutions, maybe under de Ruyter’s guidance.
“That source you told me about—did they say anything to contradict all that?”
“No,” Logan admitted. “Not so far.”
Blake didn’t say anything to that, just seemed to go on staring straight ahead as he’d been doing from the start.
“I think we’re being watched,” he said, as Ashley, body tensing, noted the presence of a third bicyclist next to the concession stand. A man with a shaved head and a gray sweat-soaked T-shirt who was opening a water bottle.
“Then it’s time that we split up,” Logan said.
“I’ll get in touch with you when I can,” Blake said.
Logan and Ashley rose from the bench, then started to walk down that bike path, as if they were a couple of strollers making a circuit about the park who’d simply been taking a short break. They didn’t look back at Blake, didn’t look back at that concession stand where the “bicyclist” had been stationed, didn’t say anything to each other as they went on walking.
Ashley sensed the presence of people behind the trees lining the path. Logan’s pace got a little brisker and Ashley kept up with him, walking that much faster herself as she continued to hear those people moving through the trees.
She thought of her gun, thought of the possibility that she might have to use it as up ahead two Men in Black stepped out of the trees and spread out, one positioned on each side of the bike path facing them, each reaching into their jackets. Before they could get to their weapons one of them was shuddering on the ground, shot by Logan. Ashley had her own weapon in hand then, the metal of its grip cold against her palm, just in time to fire at the second man along with Logan.
He went down. Then there were other shots from behind them.
“Don’t look back!” Logan yelled as Ashley reflexively turned her head to look over her shoulder and see Blake, the gun that had been in his jacket now in his hand. But he was the one reeling from one bullet, then another, then another, limbs flailing with the impacts as he fell backward onto the ground, just before the whole scene disappeared from her view behind the bend in the path.
“Don’t look back.”