I looked at the girl Halliday had just shoved at me like a virgin sacrifice. She was a leggy little sophomore from Radcliffe, slim as a cigarette, with a black bob and painted brows that gave her a look of pretty astonishment. She gazed up at me in myopic perplexity, as if my face were a puzzle she'd completed only to find herself holding an unaccounted piece.
I looked at Halliday. "I beg your pardon?"
"Hypnotize her, Finch," he repeated. "Everyone knows you can do it."
"Am I? Why don't we ask Dickie Hodgson's sister?"
Halliday gave me a challenging look. The smug son of a bitch knew he had me. I glanced past him to the nearest exit, clear across Emerson's student lounge, calculating the odds of making my escape before Halliday succeeded in drawing a crowd. A few years earlier I might've stood a chance, but ever since Prohibition attendance at the psychology department's illicit Christmas soirées had soared. The path to freedom tonight was blocked by a fox-trotting mob of besotted doctoral candidates. No, Halliday had me cornered. Though that didn't mean I was defeated.
"I can't hypnotize her, Wick."
"For starters"I stalled"she's tight."
"I am not!" The girl stamped the floor with one satin-shod foot. I threw her a look to keep quiet, but it was too late; she'd already managed to create a scene. Several of our classmates within earshot were drifting our way to investigate. And Halliday wasted no time encouraging them.
"Gather 'round, ladies and gentlemen," he called over their heads, playing carnival barker. "Our own Dr. Caligari is going to grace us with a demonstration of his formidable mental powers!" Someone switched off the gramophone, and the musica dance number called "Bit by Bit You're Breaking My Heart" by Charles Dornberger and His Orchestrawent silent, leaving only the susurrus of the inebriated crowd. As all eyes in the lounge turned our way my throat constricted and the roof of my mouth began to sweat. It was a recurrent nightmare come to life the one consolation being that in the present version, at least, I was still wearing my trousers. God only knew what was going through the head of Halliday's girl at that moment. I felt a sudden and overwhelming wave of tenderness toward her, this girl whose name I didn't even know.
But when I turned to show her what I hoped was a reassuring look, I found Halliday's girl glaring at me. Arms crossed. One toe tapping the carpet in agitation. She gave me the withering look of an impatient prostitute, asked, "Well, what are you waiting for?"
"I suppose ... a pocketwatch."
Another bluff. All I'd needed was a birthday candle to get Dickie Hodgson's sister howling like a beagle that had heard a fire siren. As last-ditch efforts went, I gave this one even odds at succeeding. Thanks to the war, wristwatches were no longer considered effeminate, at least among the college set, while their stuffier, vest-dwelling forebears were quickly going the way of the pince-nez. Or so I sincerely hoped.
I cringed as the pocketwatch came through the crowd, passing from hand to hand until it arrived in my ownan absurd thing, heavy as a gold-plated turnip, its weight in my palm conjuring images of a firelit study, an alcoholic judge, a solemn retelling of some ancestor's decisive role in the Louisiana Purchase. I opened its gold cover and read the inscription: Truth lies at the center of a circle. Maybe so for the watch's owner. But all I stood to discover at the center of the circle of onlookers now surrounding me was a very public embarrassment.
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