bequest (excerpt)

You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.

- Emily Dickinson

Cal sat fidgeting in the waiting room of the insurance company, slouched sideways in a chair, one leg swinging and his fingers tapping with barely controlled agitation. This hadn't been his first choice of a case to tackle, but they had been the first to respond to his calls and he had felt such a need to get out of the office and away from Gillian's ghost that he hadn't waited. Unfortunately, his impatience had merely resulted in making him sit here now, waiting for his contact to become available and trying to simply not think at all.

Finally, a man in a charcoal grey suit and a sober tie came through the double doors behind the secretary, extending a hand towards Cal as he introduced himself.

"Dr. Lightman? I'm Parker Calhoun, head of the Claims department. Thank you for taking on our case."

"Thanks might be a bit previous, mate, seeing as how you don't know what I'm going to say about your case. I could end up costing you a chunk of change," Cal said as he shook the man's hand. He knew his words were a bit provocative but in his head he told himself that he had only promised to try - he hadn't promised to turn into a choir boy.

Calhoun's eyebrows rose a bit but he kept his pleasant manner. "We just want to know what really happened. If payment is due we want to provide it. That's what we're here for."

"Huh," said Cal as he made a point of looking around the office suite quizzically. "I must have the wrong building. Thought I was coming to an insurance company, but not paying is what they're all about. Bunch of bloodsucking leeches, if you know what I mean." He relished the disconcerted look Calhoun was giving him. "What? You can lie about your motives if you want to, but I'm not gonna join you."

"We wouldn't ask you to," Calhoun assured him smoothly. "Just that you don't let any prejudices you might have color your findings."

Cal just grunted his assent, his eyes still wandering around the room.

"If you'll come this way, I'll tell you about the situation while the investigator queues up the videos."

Cal followed him down the hall, only half listening as the man recapped details that Cal had already covered when he read the file.

"Catherine Finster owned an upscale inn and restaurant out in Albemarle County. At one time it was quite successful, but the economic downturn and the loans she took out to expand a few years ago pushed it to the financial brink. It burned down a month ago, under suspicious circumstances, and now she wants to collect the insurance. We suspect arson might be involved and are withholding payment pending our own investigation."

"And you're hoping I'm gonna tell you she torched the place."

"No, we want the truth."

Cal snorted in disbelief. "What did the authorities say?"

"They classified the fire as due to undetermined causes. Frankly, they think it could have been arson, but if it was, the signs were sufficiently disguised to make it impossible to know for sure. They're leaving the investigation open for now but they aren't pursuing it further at this time. Ms. Finster, however, is threatening to sue for her settlement and we need to be sure before we deny her."

"Because you want to do the right thing, is that it?" Cal asked sarcastically.

"Yes, Dr. Lightman," Calhoun answered with patience that was obviously wearing thin. "We want to do the right thing, but I won't deny there is also the fact that if we deny payment and are later proven wrong the company would be opening itself up to a potentially costly lawsuit."

By now they had reached their destination and Calhoun pushed open a mahogany door to reveal a conference room outfitted with the latest audio visual equipment. Seated at the long, gleaming wood table was an attractive, blond woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in a suit but with much less of a corporate feel about her than Cal's current guide.

"Dr. Lightman, this is Carolyn Campos, the investigator assigned to the Finster case."

"Just call me Caro," the woman said with a pleasing lack of artifice as she held out her hand to Cal.

"Cal," he replied in kind before sitting down at the table.

"Caro conducted all the interviews and did the fieldwork. She'll be able to show you what we've got."

"Right, let's get on with it then, shall we. Time's a-wasting and all that. Plus, I'm getting a little tired of listening to the stuffed shirt over there tell me what he wants me to find." He was pleased to see Caro suppress a grin at his words - she looked like someone he could work with.

"Dr. Lightman, I have been saying no such thing," Calhoun protested.

"Well, there's saying … and then there's saying," Cal explained as he waved a hand in Calhoun's direction, fingers wiggling as he indicated the man's expression, "and your face has been doing plenty of talking."

"Well then, I just hope Mrs. Finster speaks to you as clearly."

Cal ignored him, raising an eyebrow in Caro's direction instead. She took the hint and started up the first of the videos while explaining what they contained.

"This is the police interview, conducted the day after the fire," she told him as a grainy, washed-out picture of an interrogation room came up on the screen at the end of the room.

Cal stood and dragged his chair up close to the screen before sprawling out in it once more. He watched a haggard looking but classically featured woman answer the cop's questions, tilting his head further and further to the side as the interview progressed. The play of expressions across her face occupied him and for at least a short while, his own problems faded. Suddenly he called out to Caro to stop the video.

"There - that's shame," he said as he rose and pointed to the woman's face. "When he asked her about how her business was going, she said it was improving, but she showed shame."

"What does that mean?" Calhoun asked.

"Don't know that yet, do I? Don't know if it means anything at all." Then he waved towards the controls. "Start it up again, will you, love," he said before slumping down again into his chair.

He stayed there until the video ended, then he looked over at Calhoun. "She didn't do it," he told him.

"How do you know?" Caro asked as Calhoun frowned.

"Run the tape back a bit," Cal directed her. "There. Stop. This is just after he asked her if she set the fire herself. She told him no and the only thing I can see on her face is sadness. There's not an ounce of guilt."

"But what if she had someone else set it for her?" Calhoun asked.

"They covered that too. Run it forward a tiny bit more - to where they ask her if she hired someone."

Caro did as he asked and Cal got up and went to the screen once more.

"See, it's the same expression and not a bit of leakage. She didn't do it," he told them.

"What about earlier, where you said she was ashamed?" Caro asked, as much from curiosity about the science as from any lack of faith in Cal's assertions.

"Well, I don't know exactly, but it seems to me that if the business you love is headed for the crapper, you might eventually blame yourself a bit, hence the shame," Cal told him, careful not to let the twinge he felt at his own words show on his face. "Doesn't mean you actively tried to make it go up in flames." Unless you're me, he thought to himself.

"I don't see how you can tell anything from a video of this quality," Calhoun objected stubbornly, his eyes on the grainy image.

"I can take it back to my lab and blow it up if you want, but it'll cost you," Cal told him.

"No need," Caro interrupted. "We did our own interviews and the picture is much clearer. I can play it for you now."

She pushed a few more buttons and a new film started to play. True to her word, this one was in perfect color and had a much closer focus on Melinda Finster's face. Cal watched the preliminary questions and then waved his hand when he wanted her to stop the playback again.

"Same thing here, only more of it. When she tells you that the inn was her pride and joy, she means it. She would never have destroyed it, no matter what the circumstances," Cal reiterated.

Caro hit play again, but Cal had stopped watching. He turned towards Calhoun and shrugged theatrically. "Sorry mate, but if I was you I'd pay up and shut up."

"Well, I guess that's what we brought you in to tell us - even if it wasn't what we were hoping to hear," Calhoun conceded graciously.

Cal, however, didn't get the full effect of the tacit apology. Something on the screen had caught his eye and he was watching it with interest. A man had entered the interview room and sat down next to Melinda, putting his arm around her shoulder. He whispered something to her and she shook her head. He said some more, all of it too low for the microphones to pick up more than vague mutterings. Melinda shook her head again, more vehemently this time and a fleeting expression crossed the man's face.

"Stop it right there," Cal called out. "Who is that bloke?"

"That's her husband," Caro told him.

"Does he have anything to do with the inn?" Cal asked.

"No, he's an accountant or something. Works in the nearest town."

"Well, I wouldn't go paying anyone too soon because she might be innocent, but he has guilt written all over his face. And that expression right there … that's fear." He swung around to Caro. "Did you ever question him?"

"Only briefly, the inn is owned solely by her. I think she already had it before they married and the policy is in her name only. Besides, he was on a business trip when it burned," Caro told him. "Wouldn't you have seen something in her face if he started the fire for her?"

Cal gave her a sharp look. "Not if he didn't tell her." He got up from his chair and headed for the door. "I want the two of them in my office as soon as you can get them there," he said over his shoulder as he stalked out of the room.

Cal was actually surprised at himself. He had intended to do the bare minimum. Watch their tapes and give them the answers as he saw them. Nothing more. Instead, he had opened a whole new can of worms and made far more work for himself. Oh well, he thought as he left the insurance offices, work was what he was looking for and he had even managed to go a whole hour without thinking of Gill. A whole hour when he was able to ignore the gigantic, Gillian shaped hole in his life. Now the real trick would be to fill his days so completely he never had a chance to look at the gap she had left behind. If it also saved the company, so much the better, maybe that would be what she needed to bring her back again.