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Alms for the Poor

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"I could use some advice."

"Sure, Amita. What's going on?"

"Maybe nothing. Oh, I've got class in like five minutes. I know you and Larry have a date tonight--could you drop by for a few minutes then?"

~~~~~

"Charles, could you at least try to take this seriously?" Larry looked up from the letter he held.

Charlie didn't even bother turning to face him. "Why?" The stub of chalk kept moving, squeaking out a multi-variable equation, and then a refined version. "I have a whole file folder of those things. Managed to keep every one I've ever gotten--except the ones I got while I was at Princeton." He paused, studying the board. "I think Mom burned them."

"You've shown me that file, and I've seen them. I will even agree with you that they're usually harmless. This one just seems more . . ." Larry searched for the right word, and found himself scanning the precisely penned sentences once more. "More earnest." There was something faintly unnerving about the neat march of letters across the lavender-scented stationery. "Perhaps you should speak to your brother."

"No, Larry!" Charlie's chalk skidded to stop and he finally turned around, gesturing at the letter with one hand. "It's just a student crush. That's it. As long as it doesn't interfere with her work--whoever she is--she can send me all the anonymous letters she wants." He turned decisively back to the board.

Larry tapped a fingertip on the line that had caught his eye. "'When you enter a room, it explodes with color. When you smile at me, I am a rainbow. Never let anyone hide your light from me'," he read. "Charles, do you truly not care, or do you enjoy this?"

Charlie grinned, and kept writing.

~~~~~

"Have you seen Amita recently?"

"Not since she had lunch with Charles and myself, earlier. Why?"

"She wanted me to drop by on my way to meet you, but I can't get her to pick up in the office or on her cell."

"That's odd. Oh . . . Oh, no. Megan, I will call you right back."

"Larry? Larry--?"

~~~~~

Sometimes, with his loose curls and his dramatic gestures, she thought he looked a little like a clown. Or like a very eccentric artist, painting the air with imaginary colors.

Other times, like today, he looked like a young god.

Amita leaned against the door to the small classroom, book bag cradled against her chest, and watched through the inset window. Afternoon sunlight poured through the western windows, edging the desks and chalkboard and settling around Charlie in a halo of chalk dust and gold. She could barely hear his voice through the door, but the timbre was familiar: intense, focused, lowered to impart holy secrets.

She let herself close her eyes for a moment and simply listen. That tone had been the first thing about Charles Eppes to catch her attention, even before she had witnessed his brilliant way with math. And from what she could see, it was having a similar effect on his current female students.

Amita made a quick head count, checking a theory. Yes, there were more female students than usual in his rival's classes at CalSci. Some of these students would have to take second-year courses in their final terms, classes they had put off for the chance to take harmonics with Professor Eppes.

Clearly, they didn't mind. One girl, blond hair down to her waist, was staring and not even bothering to take notes. A slim black woman was watching Charlie's hands as they darted back in to add a line to his equation. A third was steadily penciling notes, absorbed in the work--but she was also sitting in the chair closest to the board, and wearing full make-up and jewelry, her dark curls neatly styled.

Charlie looked up in the middle of his explanation, and saw Amita through the window. She could have sworn he winked at her, though he didn't pause, and she was annoyed to feel a blush rising. It's just Charlie.

Someone else had noticed the wink. The girl in the front row twisted in her chair, seeking whatever had caught her professor's attention. The second she caught Amita's gaze, she turned back to her notes, scribbling to catch up as Charlie dismissed the class.

Amita let a few students pass her before she entered the classroom. Charlie was answering questions when she walked up and stood waiting. He broke off in the middle to smile at her. "Amita, hi. One second." Then he turned back to the girl from the front row, who looked displeased at having her Charlie-time interrupted. "I think you've got it, Lynne. If you want to run your work by me, I have a whole block of office hours tomorrow."

~~~~~

"You've reached the voicemail of Charlie Eppes. Leave me a message."

"Charlie, it's Megan. If you get this, give me a call. I'm trying to track down Amita."

~~~~~

"I told you, if you even reach for the phone--"

The words echoed down the empty hallway of the back wing of the mathematics building. Megan turned a corner, trying to remember which way Amita's office was.

"I'm not touching the phone. See?"

That was Amita's voice, and Megan followed it around another corner, where she nearly slammed into Larry. He let out a sigh of relief and grabbed her arm. The door just beyond him was slightly open, and he held a finger to his lips before pointing in that direction.

"What do you want?" Amita sounded as if she were forcing her voice to stay calm. "I don't think we've met. Were we in a class together?"

"Shut up!" The other voice was young, female, and furious. "My name is Lynne. I want you to leave Charlie alone."

Megan bent her mouth to Larry's ear and spoke very softly. "What's happening?"

Larry's eyes were huge as he returned the whisper, nearly too low to be heard at all. "Charlie has . . . admirers." Megan translated that to stalkers, then froze at the next words. "This one brought a gun with her."

Shit. Megan drew her sidearm, and edged past Larry to peer through the opening.

Amita sat at her desk, hands empty and visible on the desk before her. Megan couldn't see the girl she was talking to, and the opening was so narrow there was no way Megan would be able to find an angle to get a shot off.

"I'm sort of his girlfriend," Amita said reasonably. "How well do you think he'll take it if I tell him he can't see me any more?" Her gaze flickered across the doorway and widened as she saw Megan. Immediately--oh, good girl--Amita turned her full attention back to the other girl. To Lynne. "Charlie's not the type to give up easily."

"So make it a clean break." Lynne's voice sounded rough, as if she'd been crying. "Take the position Harvard's offered you. It's a good job; he'll buy that."

Harvard? This was news to Megan. Amita stiffened. "What if I don't want to?" she said, after a long moment of silence. "I love him."

What looked very much like the business end of a pistol edged into Megan's field of view. "Do you think you're the only one?" Lynne demanded.

Amita blinked hard. "I know I'm not. I wasn't the only advisee to fall for Charlie, much less the only girl on campus." She swallowed. "He just happened to fall for me back."

Lynne's voice was shaking now. "You don't deserve him."

Megan eased into a shooter's stance and raised her gun. If the little bitch would just take a couple more steps forward. . . .

"No," Amita said simply. "I don't. Nobody on this campus does. There is no one alive on earth right now as brilliant in his field as Charles Eppes. And maybe we all wish he could shine just for us."

The rest of the pistol, and two hands on the grip, slid into view. The voice had dropped to a raw whisper. "So why you?"

Close enough. Megan kicked the door wide, leveling her own gun at the tall, dark-haired girl with that pistol in Amita's face. "Drop it, now!"

Lynne started violently, and the pistol tumbled to the floor with a clatter, instead of the solid thunk Megan had expected. She glanced from the steel-grey weapon to the girl's terrified face. "That's not even real, is it?"

A tear slid down Lynne's cheek, but she didn't respond.

Megan lowered her weapon, then holstered it. "Amita, are you all right?"

"Yeah." She was still seated, and like Lynne, quietly not moving.

"It wasn't real?" Megan had forgotten that Larry was behind her, until he spoke almost in her ear.

Megan knelt and lifted the pistol lightly by a finger through the trigger guard. "I think it's a water pistol."

"Wow." Amita rubbed a hand across her eyes, and Larry moved to her side.

Lynne sat down slowly on the floor and bent her face against her knees. "I'm sorry," she choked out, and Megan knew if the girl looked up her cheeks would be wet with tears. "I didn't mean--I'm sorry."

Megan dug into her pocket for her cell phone. "What's the number for campus security?" She waited, but Amita just sat there, staring at Lynne. "Amita?"

Amita shook her head. "I don't want to press charges. She wasn't going to hurt me."

Larry stammered. "Are you sure? It might be best if--"

"I'm sure." Amita stood and walked around the desk. When Megan put out a hand to caution her back, she pushed it aside and sat down next to her assailant. "Lynne?"

The girl paid no attention.

Amita rested a shaking hand on Lynne's shoulder. "Lynne, let me get you some help. Okay?"

After a moment, Lynne shrugged. Amita squeezed her shoulder, then looked up at Megan and Larry. "Please," she said quietly. "Don't tell Charlie about this."

~~~~~

"Amita just let me know that she's decided to take the position at Cal Sci."

"I bet Charlie's over the moon."

"I should say so, yes."

"Did you tell him?"

"Did you?"