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Miss Bianca: A Cold WAr Story

Miss Bianca
by Sara Paretsky

Abigail made her tour of the cages, adding water to all the drinking bowls. The food was more complicated, because not all the mice got the same meal. She was ten years old and this was her first job; she took her responsibilities seriously. She read the labels on the cages and carefully measured out feed from the different bags. All the animals had numbers written in black ink on their backs; she checked these against the list Bob Pharris had given her with the feeding instructions.
“That’s like being a slave,” Abigail said, when Bob showed her how to match the numbers on the mice to the food directives. “It’s not fair to call them by numbers instead of by name, and it’s mean to write on their beautiful fur.”
Bob just laughed. “It’s the only way we can tell them apart, Abby.”
Abigail hated the name Abby. “That’s because you’re not looking at their faces. They’re all different. I’m going to start calling you Number Three because you’re Dr. Kiel’s third student. How would you like that?”
“Number Nineteen,” Bob corrected her. “I’m his nineteenth student, but the other sixteen have all gotten their PhD’s and moved on to glory. Don’t give the mice names, Abby: you’ll get too attached to them and they don’t live very long.”
In fact, the next week, when Abigail began feeding the animals on her own, some of the mice had disappeared. Others had been moved into the contamination room, where she wasn’t supposed to go. The mice in there had bad diseases that might kill her if she touched them. Only the graduate students or the professors went in there, wearing gloves and masks.
Abigail began naming some of the mice under her breath. Her favorite, number 139, she called “Miss Bianca,” after the white mouse in the book The Rescuers. Miss Bianca always sat next to the cage door when Abigail appeared, grooming her exquisite whiskers with her little pink paws. She would cock her head and stare at Abigail with bright black eyes.
In the book, Miss Bianca ran a prisoner’s rescue group, so Abigail felt it was only fair that she should rescue Miss Bianca in turn, or at least let her have some time outside the cage. This afternoon, she looked around to make sure no one was watching, then scooped Miss Bianca out of her cage and into the pocket of her dress.
“You can listen to me practice, Miss Bianca,” Abigail told her. She moved into the alcove behind the cages where the big sinks were.
Dr. Kiel thought Abigail’s violin added class to the lab, at least that’s what he said to Abigail’s mother, but Abigail’s mother said it was hard enough to be a single mom without getting fired in the bargain, so Abigail should practice where she wouldn’t disturb the classes in the lecture rooms or annoy the other professors.
Abigail had to come to the lab straight from school. She did her homework on a side table near her mother’s desk, and then she fed the animals and practiced her violin in the alcove.
“Today Miss Abigail Sherwood will play Bach for you,” she announced grandly to Miss Bianca.
She tuned the violin as best she could and began a simplified version of the first sonata for violin. Miss Bianca stuck her head out of the pocket and looked inquiringly at the violin. Abigail wondered what the mouse would do if she put her inside. Miss Bianca could probably squeeze in through the F hole, but getting her out would be difficult. The thought of Mother’s rage, not to mention Dr. Kiel or even Bob Pharris’s, made her decide against it.
She picked up her bow again, but heard voices out by the cages. When she peered out, she saw Bob talking to a stranger, a small woman with dark hair.
Bob smiled at her. “This is Abby; her mother is Dr. Kiel’s secretary. Abby helps us by feeding the animals.”
“It’s Abigail,” Abigail said primly.
“And one of the mouses, Abigail, she is living in your—your—” the woman pointed at Miss Bianca.
“Abby, put the mouse back in the cage,” Bob said. “If you play with them, we can’t let you feed them.”
Abigail scowled at the woman and at Bob, but she put Miss Bianca back in her cage. “I’m sorry, Miss Bianca. Mamelouk is watching me.”
“Mamelouk?” the woman said. “I am thinking your name ‘Bob?’”
Mamelouk the Iron-Tummed was the evil cat who worked for the jailor in The Rescuers, but Abigail didn’t say that, just stared stonily at the woman, who was too stupid to know that the plural of “mouse” was mice, not “mouses.”
“This is Elena,” Bob told Abigail. “She’s Dr. Kiel’s new dishwasher. You can give her a hand, when you’re not practicing your violin or learning geometry.”
“Is allowed for children working in the lab?” Elena asked. “In my country, government is not allowing children work.”
Abigail’s scowl deepened: Bob had been looking at her homework while she was down here with the mice. “We have slavery in America,” she announced. “The mice are slaves, too.”
“Abigail, I thought you liked feeding the animals.” Dr. Kiel had come into the animal room without the three of them noticing.
He wore crepe-soled shoes which let him move soundlessly through the lab. A short stocky man with brown eyes, he could look at you with a warmth that made you want to tell him your secrets, but just when you thought you could trust him, he would become furious over nothing that Abigail could figure out. She had heard him yelling at Bob Pharris in a way that frightened her. Besides, Dr. Kiel was her mother’s boss, which meant she must never EVER be saucy to him.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Kiel,” she said, her face red. “I only was telling Bob I don’t like the mice being branded, they’re all different, you can tell them apart by looking.”
“You can tell them apart because you like them and know them,” Dr. Kiel said. “The rest of us aren’t as perceptive as you are.”
“Dolan,” he added to a man passing in the hall. “Come and meet my new dishwasher—Elena Mirova.”
Dr. Dolan and Dr. Kiel didn’t like each other. Dr. Kiel was always loud and hearty when he talked to Dr. Dolan, trying too hard not to show his dislike. Dr. Dolan snooped around the lab looking for mistakes that Dr. Kiel’s students made. He’d report them with a phony jokiness, as if he thought leaving pipettes unwashed in the sink was funny when really it made him angry.
Dr. Dolan had a face like a giant baby’s, the nose little and squashed upward, his cheeks round and rosy; when Bob Pharris had taken two beakers out of Dr. Dolan’s lab, he’d come into Dr. Kiel’s lab, saying, “Sorry to hear you broke both your arms, Pharris, and couldn’t wash your own equipment.”
He came into the animal room now and smiled in a way that made his eyes close into slits. Just like a cat’s. He said hello to Elena, but added to Dr. Kiel, “I thought your new girl was starting last week, Nate.”
“She arrived a week ago, but she was under the weather; you would never have let me forget it if she’d contaminated your ham sandwiches—I mean your petri dishes.”
Dr. Dolan scowled, but said to Elena, “The rumors have been flying around the building all day. Is it true you’re from eastern Europe?”
Dolan’s voice was soft, forcing everyone to lean toward him if they wanted to hear him. Abigail had trouble understanding him, and she saw Elena did, too, but Abigail knew it would be a mistake to try to ask Dr. Dolan to speak more slowly or more loudly.
Elena’s face was sad. “Is true. I am refugee, from Czechoslovakia.”
“How’d you get here?” Dolan asked.
“Just like your ancestors did, Pat,” Dr. Kiel said. “Yours came steerage in a ship. Elena flew steerage in a plane. We lift the lamp beside the golden door for Czechs just as we did for the Irish.”
“And for the Russians?” Dolan said. “Isn’t that where your people are from, Nate?”
“The Russians would like to think so,” Kiel said. “It was Poland when my father left.”
“But you speak the lingo, don’t you?” Dolan persisted.
There was a brief silence. Abigail could see the vein in Dr. Kiel’s right temple pulsing. Dolan saw it also and gave a satisfied smirk.
He turned back to Elena. “How did you end up in Kansas? It’s a long way from Prague to here.”
“I am meeting Dr. Kiel in Bratislava,” Elena said.
“I was there in ’66, you know,” Dr. Kiel said. “Elena’s husband edited the Czech Journal of Virology and Bacteriology and the Soviets didn’t like their editorial policies—the journal decided they would only take articles written in English, French or Czech, not in Russian.”
Bob laughed. “Audacious. That took some guts.”
Abigail was memorizing words under her breath to ask her mother over dinner: perceptive, editorial policies, audacious.
“Perhaps not so good idea. When Russian tanks coming last year, they putting husband in prison,” Elena said.
“Well, welcome aboard,” Dr. Dolan said, holding out his soft white hand to Elena.
She’d been holding her hands close to her side, but when she shook hands Abigail saw a huge bruise on the inside of her arm, green, purple, yellow, spreading in a large oval up and down from the elbow.
”They beat you before you left?” Dr. Dolan asked.
Elena’s eyes opened wide; Abigail thought she was scared. “Is me, only,” she said, “me being—not know in English.”
“What’s on today’s program?” Dr. Kiel asked Abigail abruptly, pointing at her violin.
“Bach.”
“You need to drop that old stuffed shirt. Beethoven. I keep telling you, start playing those Beethoven sonatas, they’ll bring you to life.” He ruffled her hair. “I think I saw your mother putting the cover over her typewriter when I came down.”
That meant Abigail was supposed to leave. She looked at Miss Bianca, who was hiding in the shavings at the back of her cage. It’s good you’re afraid, Abigail told her silently. Don’t let them catch you, they’ll hurt you or make you sick with a bad disease.

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  • Deborah McIntosh

    After reading a few of your books, I’m really happy to see an actual map of your neighborhood. Thank you!

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