Unfortunately, as I learn the following morning, Kristy's advice proves to be less than helpful. My sister was enrolled in no less than four specified psychology classes before she disappeared, some startlingly ominous to me, her unworldly small-town baby sister: Psychology of Death and Dying, The Psychology of Religious Experience, Research Apprenticeship in Psychology and Perception.
I'm at a complete loss as to where to begin. Sitting on the frigid stone steps of the residence building that Kristy rather unceremoniously tossed me out of at first light – 'I have a mid-term' – I decide to let Lena's class schedule dictate my path. If Kristy feels that my sister's classmates might hold the key to her disappearance, I have no reason to disagree. And if these classmates are the friends that Lena warned me about, well then, all the better.
I am fortunate enough to have unknowingly begun the search for my sister a mere two months after her disappearance. Though the slight chill of late November in New Orleans may be less than ideal, at least Lena's classes are still in session at this time of year and I'm able to sneak into her first of the day, Perception.
The material completely escapes me but no one seems to notice, lost as I am in the sea of over two hundred unfamiliar faces, all staring at the reedy professor before us. Time seems to pass in slow motion, long and tedious as it is, until the professor abruptly stops speaking and the students begin to rise. I'm quick to rise, too, noting that the professor is making a quick departure.
"Sir," I call timidly as I reach the final step to the podium.
He hesitates at the sound of my voice, a tall and thin man with a worn brown leather briefcase in one hand and a lens cloth in the other. The narrow eyes that fix on my face are cold, unsolicitous. "Office hours begin at noon."
"Sir, my name is Jessie Hornbrooke. I was hoping you would have a moment to-"
"Office hours begin at noon," he repeats firmly, turning away again. "Room 401 in the Psychology Building."
A quick glance at my watch tells me it's 11:45am and I'm left running after him through the maze of clinics, auditoriums and faculty offices. As I turn a corner, I'm fortunate enough to see him disappearing into what appears to be his own office, and thirty seconds later I'm knocking on the door.
"Come in," he calls and doesn't bother to hide his displeasure at the sight of my face.
"Sir," I begin again.
"If you have a question about the material, you need to refer to your T.A.," he intones unhelpfully, his gaze shifting back to his computer monitor.
"Could you please listen to me," I demand, unsuccessfully attempting to keep the exasperation from my voice.
He pauses, his mouth compressing into a thin line. His eyes slice back up to my face. He's waiting in dead silence, refusing even to address me directly.
"Sir, my name is Jessie Hornbrooke. My sister disappeared from this university two months ago, in late September. She was a student in your class and I need to find her. I know she's still alive and I know she's here. Is there anything you can tell me about Lena Hornbrooke?" My voice falters slightly when I say her name, but he gives no acknowledgement.
"Miss Hornbrooke, I teach five classes here, each with more than two hundred students in attendance," he says steadily and without inflection. "You can not expect me to identify one missing student from two months ago, no less."
I exhale slowly, not sure what I had been expecting but frustrated just the same. I offer her class schedule in one outstretched hand. "Could you at least tell me whom I can speak to about her research apprenticeship?"
He doesn't accept the paper. "Research apprenticeships are highly sought-after positions in this department. Students are selected in the first week of classes by Professor Black. His office is down the hall, 419."
"Thank you, sir." I turn, my hand closing on the doorknob again.
I glance back. His expression has changed, adopted more compassion and something approaching… pity?
"Girls go missing in this city every day, Miss Hornbrooke. Sometimes they run away, or are kidnapped, or even murdered. Often, they are never found. It's best not to look too hard, Jessie. You may not like what you find."
I feel my eyes widen with shock at his cryptic words. "I will find my sister," I say with no small degree of certainty. "Nothing is going to stop me."
I'm gone before he can respond, so far past patience for his horrible sentiments. I know I've officially given up the pretense of disguising my identity from Lena's professors, friends and room-mate. Everyone can know that I'm here to find Lena and I won't stop until I have; I don't care anymore.
My cell phone rings as I step back into the hallway, the professor's door swinging closed behind me. I know inherently that it is Mama and am sorely tempted to ignore it, determined as I am to locate Professor Black before the day's end. But I haven't spoken to her since boarding the night bus almost a full day ago and my loyal child's sense of duty won't allow me to cause her additional suffering.
"Hi, Mama," I greet her with as much warmth as I can muster.
"Well?" She prods and I almost flinch at the unintentional slight. She's sent me, her youngest child, out to wander the streets of this dark and dangerous city and she can't pause to confirm my safety. I'm briefly thankful that I've grown so accustomed to her indifference. It takes the sting out of these cruel moments.
"Nothing yet, Mama," I report dutifully.
"Nothing? How can there be nothing?" She demands instantly. "How have you spent your morning? Sleeping? While your sister is God-knows-where?"
"No, Mama, I-"
"You think this is a vacation, Jezebel?" She cuts me off abruptly. I picture her face flushing red, her eyes narrowing as the grief and anger consume her yet again. She'll be standing in our small kitchen, one fisted hand on her hip, the other clenched around the phone as her knuckles glow a bleached white with the force of her grip. One slippered foot will be tapping, tapping, tapping compulsively. I've seen the scene so many times before.
"I spoke to her room-mate and professor today, Mama. I'm looking for her, I promise. I'm trying."
"You're trying, always trying, Jezebel. You're just like your father," she hisses.
I physically recoil from the phone, so beyond shocked that she would mention him. She almost never does. Once it was to avoid the pain of thinking of him, but now I know it's also because she's superstitious enough to believe that invoking his name could subject Lena to the same destiny. She wouldn't want to tempt fate.
She's quiet, suddenly, and I'm sure her thoughts are the same. A long moment stretches between us and then, finally, I hear her drawn-out exhale.
"Find her, Jezebel," she says quietly, the heat gone from her voice.
I open my mouth to begin my ritual of reassurance, but she's already hung-up. Today, her grief is beyond the scope of my abilities to soothe. She's not interested in my empty words.
I slide the phone back into my pocket with trembling fingers, still shaken by her mention of my father. We three have always been so diligent in our joint endeavour to never think of him, never speak of him. I can't begin to think of what it means that my mother would slip-up now, after so many years. Bad juju, bad karma.
I begin my wander down the hall, still trying to shake off the daze I've lost myself in. Thankfully, my pounding heart calms before I reach Professor Black's office door, and I feel collected enough to face him.
I realize only after I've met him that I had been expecting another shady and disinterested character. My unfavourable experiences with both Kristy and Lena's Perception professor must have poisoned my attitude since Professor Black's hospitality alarms me in every way.
"You must be Lena Hornebrooke's sister," he says warmly, drawing me into the cozy office space and gesturing towards a high-back wing chair. I sink into it slowly, startled by his perception, still recovering from the thoughts of my father. "You seem surprised that I knew that," he continues and again, I am shocked by his intuition.
"Jessie Hornbrooke. How did you know?" I manage as he follows suit and settles into his rich leather desk chair.
He smiles slightly, steepling his fingers, his expression the exact right mixture of warm and regretfully grim. "There are certain resemblances. I was fond of your sister. She was an excellent student."
"Was," I echo, disliking his word choice.
His smile fades. "I didn't mean to upset you," he says gently, reclining in his chair as a negligent hand sweeps through his thick black hair. "Please tell me how I can help you."
"How did Lena end up in your apprenticeship program, Professor Black?"
"Please, you can call me James." He pauses and I nod my acknowledgment. "The apprenticeship positions are usually reserved for third- and fourth-year students. There are a number of prerequisites, mostly ethics and effective research courses. But Lena was exceptionally interested. It was obvious that she took the program very seriously."
"So you offered her the position," I prod when he pauses again.
"She asked for it. Rather doggedly, if I recall. And she performed very well, for those first few weeks."
"And then she disappeared."
"Right. What do you think happened to her, Professor Black?"
"James," he intones. "And I don't know, Jessie. I wouldn't hazard to guess. People go missing all the time and it's always very unfortunate."
"You're not the first person to tell me that today," I comment without inflection. My expression is bland but I'm wondering what exactly the deal is with these cryptic teachers.
"Then it must be true."
"Did Lena seem different to you, in those last couple days?"
His forehead creases as he frowns. "Different how? I didn't know her very long, Jessie."
I change tactics swiftly, sensing that this line of questioning isn't going to yield any answers. "Was she friends with your other apprentices? What can you tell me about them?"
His pale blue eyes widen slightly but his expression betrays none of his thoughts. After another long, silent moment he says, "I probably shouldn't discuss my students with you, Jessie. All I can say is that I have four other students in the apprenticeship program and they worked very closely with Lena. I couldn't speak to their friendship with her. If you'd like to meet them, you're welcome to attend the apprenticeship meeting tomorrow evening. We meet at the Starbucks downtown at seven."
"I'd like that very much… James." I flush as he smirks at my hesitant use of his name. He seems very young to be a university professor and I tell him so. He laughs, obviously startled by my non-sequitur.
"We're not all old working stiffs," he reminds me, his tone gently mocking.
I think of the unhelpful Perception professor and open my mouth to share the impression, but think better of it. As warm and hospitable as Professor Black appears, I sense that there's something dangerous about him. The frequent pauses and long silences that mar the cadence of his speech make me suspicious. He's screening his responses, choosing his words with a great deal of care. I wonder what exactly he's omitting and why.
"Are you staying in town," he asks lightly as he guides me back to his office door.
"Yes, nearby," I respond, realizing only then that I haven't secured any place to stay for a night that is quickly approaching. Already, the light that filters through his office window is weak and stained with the orange of sunset.
"Good, then. Be careful, Jessie. We'll see you tomorrow." The words are perplexing, offered haltingly yet again. I turn to catch his expression but the door is closed to me and my understanding, so typical of Lena that my breath hitches a little. My thoughts race frantically but, suddenly aware of the late hour, I'm forced to put aside the strange feelings that wash over me. Already, I feel my time here is fleeting.