Their course decided, Ashley and Logan checked out of the Clay and got back on I-95 for the trip south. As they made their way there Logan and Ashley worked out the details of the approach to de Ruyter. Getting to him was one thing, and getting him to speak to them about what she wanted to know was a different matter entirely. Given the absence of anything like this from the record they had to assume that he’d deny everything, that the terms of “Project Athena” required exactly that of him.
Because of the scarcity of specific information about Athena, Ashley focused on researching the professor himself. The little Logan dug up was not terribly useful. Born in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Family immigrated when he was eight, settled in Hempstead, New York. College at Stony Brook U, med school at the University of Pittsburgh, PhD at Rockefeller University, and then his appointment at Jefferson where he steadily made his way up through his department’s hierarchy. Along the way there were two marriages which ended in two divorces, and the birth of three children with whom he didn’t seem to be very involved.
If he was seeing anyone, or had any compromising habits outside the lab, or had connections to anyone or anything illuminating his involvement in the project, Logan hadn’t happened on it.
Why was he down in the Florida panhandle at that moment? Maybe he was just doing the academic nomad thing he’d done all his life (prior to FPU he’d had six research fellowships and visiting professorships in four different countries), and maybe he was thinking about retirement, and thought that a university town where he might find some part-time work, in a state with warm weather and no income tax, was attractive.
In either case, de Ruyter was presently living in a campus “village” in the western part of the university’s grounds. A check of Googolplex Terra enabled Ashley to identify the actual building on a satellite photo as a detached house the college had built for the use of highly regarded visitors like him.
Ashley considered approaching de Ruyter at home after they arrived in Fort Denham, as Logan expected they would be doing Sunday. But then a check of Instapedia reminded her that FPU was a commuter college, with just five percent of its student body living on campus, leaving the place deserted that day of the week, and making anyone who dropped by stick out, while she couldn’t even be sure that he’d be home.
Catching de Ruyter in his office on Monday during the hour in which he was supposed to be available to his students seemed a better idea. But she couldn’t take a chance on finding him already occupied with a student, or a colleague; she had to catch him before anyone else could. And she couldn’t just loiter outside waiting to pounce as soon as he showed. She supposed that she could go to the class he taught right before his scheduled office hour (a graduate course on Learning and Memory), and then track him from there (Building Three) to that office.
Ashley and Logan passed Friday night on the road, and then all day Saturday too, stopping only for food and gas, and then when Ashley saw a roadside Computer Shack, so that she could buy a digital voice recorder. Finally, early Sunday morning, they passed the gate to the FPU campus on the highway leading into the city, which they followed up to its intersection along the waterfront with Gulf Avenue, where they saw stretches of white sand between the buildings.
The most attractive of these was a five-story mid-rise with white stucco walls, terracotta red tiling on the roof, and balconies for what appeared to be most of the rooms. And then down in front, a wrought iron gate behind which curved steps led up to arched, carved doors. Spanish Colonial Revival, Ashley thought, a style that had been popular back when Fort Denham grew from village to city, and quite the change from the blandly Modern Fillmore, the shabbiness of the Pine Lodge. That went double for the suite, which had a balcony from which she could look out at the beach, stretching to the edge of calm, glittering, pale blue water almost the same shade as the bright subtropical sky overhead.
After the last week Ashley felt like she needed to let loose for a bit, to act as if she were not a fugitive and forget all about the Client, Harold Northrop—and Sebastian de Ruyter. So as soon as the room was secure and they were unpacked, she went for a dip.
The hotel’s rear exit let out directly onto the beach, which was happily uncrowded at the moment, and she crossed its burning sand into the water, and savored the sensation of the chilly water on that hot and muggy day. It made her feel almost as if she was on vacation, not a mere day off, but a real, recreational vacation of the kind she hadn’t had in . . . far too long.
Ashley had her swim, and then she and Logan continued to play tourist for the rest of the day, eating proper, cooked lunches and dinners out of proper plates at proper tables like they hadn’t done in a week, and then turning in early to sleep in proper beds.
Monday morning Ashley dressed just as she had for that meet in the park the previous Monday, T-shirt, jeans, sunglasses, ear buds, backpack. Then they went down to the car with all their belongings (so that in the event of their successfully making contact with de Ruyter, not having to return to the hotel) and drove to the FPU campus. Past the gate were acres and acres of parking lot, in which almost every space was filled by a vehicle. The buildings she saw past them were International Style stuff, heavy and blank and a bit grim.
“I think you should stay in the car,” Ashley said. “In case we have to get away quickly.”
Logan didn’t acknowledge her right away.
“You’re sure?” he asked. “If this gets too personal—”
“It feels like . . . something I have to do.”
Logan still didn’t like it.
“All right,” he said. “But for what it’s worth, be careful out there.”
Logan parked and then Ashley stepped out into a scorching, sticky midday which reminded her that this area had been swampland not very long before.
She walked toward the centrally located cluster of buildings that concerned her, went around the Student Union, and entered Building Three, which felt like walking into a freezer. Then it was up to the second floor to look for room 326.
Ashley found the room fifteen minutes before the lecture’s scheduled end. Passerby, hopefully, would see her and think she’d simply arrived early for the next class. And that when she went to the little window in the door and looked into the lecture hall she was just seeing if the class had cleared out early.
She made out de Ruyter at the front, wearing a blue polo shirt tucked neatly into belted khakis. He was animatedly explaining some point about the functioning of a part of the human brain, an artist’s rendering of which was projected onto the screen behind him.
It was unreal, seeing this figure from her nightmares in front of her, doing something as mundane as teaching a college class. But not so unreal that she lost herself. Ashley stepped away from the door, then walked about the corridor as students of the next class showed up so that it wouldn’t seem as if she’d been particularly interested in the goings-on in that room. Not that it seemed necessary to go to much trouble to avoid notice. More of the students talked to their phones than to each other, and those who didn’t have phones in hand had buds in their ears.
Classes finally started letting out around her, and the door to de Ruyter’s class opened. The students started streaming out, and amid the movement Ashley settled by the wall on the opposite side of the hall from 326. As others went in she saw that de Ruyter remained behind, carrying on an exchange with one student who seemed to be pleading for some kind of favor. Since she exited the room with a smile on her face, Ashley guessed that she got it.
If de Ruyter was in a generous mood, that was all to the good, Ashley thought, watching him insert a folder into his attaché case and start up the aisle, toward the door. Ashley drifted away from the door, then, so that he continued out without looking in her direction, heading for the stairs that led down to the building’s side exit.
Closer up Ashley noted that de Ruyter was slimmer than she’d expected from his most recent, three year old photo. She also noted that his movements were quite energetic for a man his age, and that his belly bulged only slightly above his belt. Apparently he took better care of himself than before. Perhaps he’d been obliged to do so after a check-up. Or a visit to the emergency room.
Ashley tracked him through the foot traffic, thickening as classes emptied and the number of students going to and from classes and other places exploded. Down the stairs, into the grounds in between that central cluster of buildings. Coming out into it Ashley saw that the third of it to her left was a green space, crisscrossed by hillocks topped with foot traffic-channeling walkways, with sunken areas like little valleys in between. The two-thirds to her right was paved, and broken up with sunken and elevated areas, with flowerpots, with large Modern sculptures, with the twisting of a driveway through its heart. The buildings around it had windows only on their high second stories and higher, and multiple, sheltered entrances and exits, all curiously fortress-like.
Professor de Ruyter continued straight across the green to the great gray block that was Building Two, and presumably his office. He nodded to a couple of people on the way—one a faculty member, another apparently a student—but didn’t stop to talk to anyone, didn’t pick up any hangers-on, didn’t take the cell phone out of the case clipped to his belt.
In the building’s atrium Ashley saw him step into an elevator. Ashley steered clear of it, and instead used the outside staircase on the opposite side of Building Two, which let into the department from the back. That rear door was open, and past it Ashley found herself in a quiet corridor lined with the doors to the offices of the department’s tenured and tenure-track faculty. At the far end the corridor took a turn into what the floor plans suggested was an open area of secretaries’ desks and administrators’ offices.
Of the doors around Ashley, only one was open, de Ruyter’s. She peeked inside and found the professor standing with his back to the door as he set his case down on top of his desk.
Ashley pulled the buds out of her ears and discretely started the digital voice recorder in a side pocket of her backpack, then stood in his doorway.
“Dr. de Ruyter, may I have a moment of your time?” Ashley asked.