It was rare for Lucy to spend the night at James's apartment, because he lived like a slob and Lucy had standards about that kind of thing, but they had dinner on Thursday night together at a Cuban restaurant that was close to his place and served extremely strong mojitos, and after a few of those they staggered back to his apartment and fell into bed together and had some drunken sex and then more or less passed out for a while, and by the time the alcoholic stupor had worn off and she had woken up again, it was three in the morning and Lucy wasn't about to get into her car alone in Larchmont Village at that hour, and since James was sound asleep and snoring, she just sighed and tried unsuccessfully for several hours to go back to sleep.
Finally, there was daylight, and Lucy slipped out of bed. James's bathroom was just this side of disgusting-she suspected he cleaned it about once a year-but the shower was nice and strong. Since she had to wear her clothes from the night before, she was glad she had changed right before dinner-the plain black pants and dark blue silk shirt she had worn to the restaurant were unstained and fine for work.
It was still pretty early, so she stopped at Starbucks. She looked wistfully at the scones behind the glass as she poured a thimble of nonfat milk and a package of Splenda into her coffee.
She parked in the garage under the building. For once she would beat David to work-normally he was there when she walked in, already pounding away at his computer or changing the rats’ litter. Whenever he pointed her relative tardiness out to her, she, in turn, always pointed out that he wore an old T-shirt and jeans to work every single day and that she actually made an effort with her own appearance, which took time. “Yeah, well there aren't enough hours in the whole year to make me look decent,” he said once with a sigh and that successfully silenced her.
Lucy rode the elevator up from the garage and headed toward their corridor. She rounded the corner and saw someone at the lab door. Her first thought was that it was probably some kind of delivery that she'd need to sign for, so she was already speeding up when she realized that no, it wasn't a package, that the girl was putting something on the door, and then the girl had turned and seen her and there was a moment when neither of them moved, and then something about the panic in the girl's eyes made Lucy realize she couldn't just let her go, so she ran toward her and the girl scrambled away in the opposite direction-only then she must have realized she'd left her messenger bag leaning against the door because she hesitated and looked back, and in that moment Lucy had already caught up to her and didn't even need to see the “THERE'S BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS” sign hanging crookedly-the girl had only succeeded in tacking up one corner-to know she had just captured the Enemy.
The Enemy was short, blond, a little on the pudgy side, and about twenty years old.
“You hurt my arm,” she said, cradling her elbow against her chest. She was sitting in a chair in the lab all hunched up inside the big black man's peacoat she was wearing.
She had twisted and fought when Lucy first grabbed her arm, and, since she was both frantic and determined, had succeeded fairly easily in breaking free of Lucy's grip-but Lucy had the foresight to turn and snatch up the girl's bag, and the girl stopped a few steps away, torn between escape and retrieval. Lucy had said-in as reasonable tone as she could muster between gasps for breath-”I’m going to know your name and where you live in a minute, so there's no point in running away,” and so, with a heavy step, the girl had followed her into the lab and waited, sullenly, for whatever was going to happen next.
Lucy dumped the contents of the girl's bag onto the desk. Papers, Sharpies, tubes of lip balm, keys, tissues, loose coins, and a wallet all fell out, followed by a can of spray paint, which then rolled off the desk and onto the floor.
She opened the wallet. “Hey, look-a student ID. That's helpful.” She studied it briefly, then looked up. “So how are you liking UCLA, Ashley? I see you're living off campus.” No response. “So what kind of name is Skopinker, anyway? Russian?” The girl was silent. “Ukrainian?” Ashley just glared at her. “Polish, maybe? Am I at least right to focus on Eastern Europe?”
“You can't do that,” the girl said. “That's my stuff. It's illegal to go through someone's stuff without a search warrant.”
“It's also illegal to pour paint on people's cars and send hate mail through the Internet,” Lucy said. “Maybe you and I should cut each other some slack.”
“You don't need to cut me any slack,” Ashley said. “I’ll be fine. It's the rats I’m worried about. Look at them, locked up in those tiny cages. Waiting to be slaughtered. Don't you have a heart? Or at least a conscience?”
“They love their cages,” Lucy said, with a brief glance over in that direction. “They're fed, they're warm, they have company-”
“Until you kill them.”
“It's a very fast, painless death. It's not like life is so great for a rat on the street, you know.”
“I bet they'd be willing to take that chance,” the girl said. “How about we set them all free and see whether or not they come back to their cages?”
“They'd die in a couple of days,” Lucy said. “Their adrenal glands don't function.”
“Holy shit,” the girl said. “What have you done to them?”
“They were born that way.”
“Bred that way, you mean.” The girl shook her head and her long blond hair swung first one way and then the other. It really was beautiful hair, Lucy thought. Too bad she was carrying around some extra weight, because the girl had potential. If she just lost twenty pounds and did something about her skin…
“It's scientific research,” Lucy said. “Ever heard of it? It's led to a lot of cures for a lot of people. For animals, too. In fact, Addison's disease is more common in dogs than in humans, and it's one of the-”
The girl cut her off. “There are ways of doing scientific research without torturing and killing harmless animals.”
“You're right,” Lucy said. “We could use college students instead. You want to be our first volunteer?”
The girl got up from her chair and walked over to the cages. “Poor little things,” she said. “What kind of a creature is man that he can do this to other animals without even feeling guilty about it? We're the ones without souls, not them.” She poked a finger in one of the cages and made little cooing noises for a while. Then she turned back to Lucy “Have you ever bothered to get down on their level and look them in the eyes, ever even tried to see the intelligence and the humanity-for want of a better word-that's in there?”
“Actually,” Lucy said, “believe it or not, I’m what you might call an animal lover. But I’m also a realist. Sometimes you have to kill a rat to save a human life, or two, or three thousand, and that's a choice I’m willing to make.”
“Easy for you to say. You haven't asked them.“ She gestured toward the rats.
“They're welcome to perform medical experiments on humans, as soon as it occurs to them to do so. And they get a grant from the NIH.”
“How can you say you're an animal lover? You think because you pet dogs now and then, that means you care?” She shook her head in sincere disgust. “If you really loved animals, you wouldn't just go and kill a few every week without even thinking twice about it-”
“No, not without thinking about it,” Lucy said. “I think about it all the time. And then I go ahead and I kill them because it's ultimately the right thing to do.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because it is. Choices aren't always easy, Ashley.”
Ashley snorted. “That's what evil people always say. You start with small animals, then why not kill bigger ones? And while you're killing bigger animals, why not kill off sick or weak humans? And, if you're going to kill them, why not kill the ones you decide are inferior to you? Because they're like a different race or religion or something? And then, of course, you'll have to kill anyone who doesn't agree with you-”
“Don't tempt me,” Lucy said.
“It's not funny,” Ashley said. “Life is valuable. All life. Can't you see that?”
Before Lucy could respond, the door opened and David walked in. “Did you see the sign on the door?” he said. “I was thinking we should leave it up there for a while just to- Oh, hi. Who's this?”
“This is Ashley,” Lucy said. “She's the one who put the sign there.”
“Ah,” David said. “Is she also the one who's been dumping paint on James's car?”
“I’m guessing,” Lucy said. They both looked at Ashley. She folded her arms tightly across her chest and stared at the wall.
“It's not that I don't think James deserves it,” David said, sitting down at his desk. “For all sorts of reasons. Like-see that coffee cup over there? He left that, right on my papers and they're all stained now, thanks to him. A slob like that deserves to have some paint thrown on his car. But he doesn't deserve it because he does animal research. That's to his credit.”
“Are we done?” Ashley asked Lucy. “I’d like to get out of here. Can I have my bag back, please?”
Lucy appealed to David. “What do you think? If James were here-”
“He'd want her head on a platter,” he said. “But it's kind of a young head. And James can be a little… overreactive.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lucy turned back to Ashley. “Listen, if I let you go right now, will you promise to leave us all alone and go bother someone else?”
“Preferably in a different building,” David said.
Ashley scowled. “I haven't admitted to anything yet. Maybe I don't even know what you're talking about.”
“Okay,” Lucy said, pulling a pad of paper toward her. “Here's the deal, Ashley. I’m writing down your name and address. If I find more signs or any of our cars gets covered with paint again or if we receive any more nasty e-mails, I will call the university administration and the police and tell them who's responsible. Do you understand?”
“You don't have any proof,” Ashley said. “And even if you did, I’d have to do what's right, no matter what the risk.”
“Yeah, well, if I were you, I’d make sure vandalizing research labs really is what's right before I went and got myself arrested for it.” Lucy tossed everything that had fallen on the desk back in the bag, then bent down and picked up the can of spray paint off the floor. “This, I’m not giving back to you,” she said and threw it in the trash can. “No good can possibly come of your having a can of spray paint. But you can take the rest and go.”
Ashley warily darted forward, snatched at the bag, and ran to the door. “Think about what you're doing,” she said. “Think about the pain you're causing these animals just because you're bigger than they are. Think about how you'd like to be treated if-”
“Think about the police coming to your door,” David said.
She shot him one last look of pure hatred and then was gone, slamming the door behind her.
David raised his fist in the air. “Vive la r'esistance!” he said cheerfully.
“Yeah, right,” Lucy said. “Do you think she thinks she's some kind of hero?”
“Someone should tell her about rats and the bubonic plague.”
“Someone should give her the bubonic plague.” He stared at the closed door. “Although, it was kind of a relief meeting her-she wasn't exactly an angry mob, was she?”
“She could have friends.”
“Or just crazy nuts on the Internet who encourage her to do this shit.” David leaned comfortably back in his chair and crossed his ankles up on top of his desk. “So… do we tell James?”
“Better not,” Lucy said, feeling a little guilty even as she said it. “We can always tell him if she does something else.”
“Do you think she will?”
“Now that we have her name and know she goes to school here, she'd have to be pretty stupid to target us again.” Lucy bent down and opened up one of her desk drawers. “Want some dried cranberries?”
“Sure.” She carried the bag over and poured a bunch into his outstretched palm. “It must be nice,” he said, gazing absently at the berries in his hand.
“What?” She put a single cranberry in her mouth.
“To be like that girl. To feel like you're one hundred percent right and everyone else is wrong. To be willing to sacrifice yourself for a cause without ever questioning whether it's really worth sacrificing yourself for.” He tilted his hand and let the cranberries fall into a pile on his desktop. “Nothing ever seems that clear-cut to me.”
“I know,” she said. “To me, either.”
They chewed away in thoughtful silence and finished off the bag of cranberries before getting down to work.