r. Sally Good sat at her desk, staring at a stack of ungraded freshman essays that lay amid the clutter, and regretting what she was afraid might turn out to be a terrible mistake. She had violated one of her major rules for department chairs: Never date the staff.
Not that she'd actually dated one of the staff yet. But what she'd done was almost as bad. She'd said she'd go out with Jack Neville.
Her feeling of regret was no reflection on Jack. He was a nice-enough guy in his shy, self-effacing way, but ever since becoming head of the English department at Hughes Community College, Sally had deliberately avoided any kind of emotional involvement with the members of the college community.
It wasn't that she hadn't been attracted to some of them. In fact, she had to admit to a slight flutter every now and again when she encountered Jorge “Rooster” Rodriguez. The fact that Jorge was a convicted killer had nothing to do with the flutter, or so she told herself. It was less easy to tell herself that his powerful physique, which she ardently hoped was the result of pumping iron rather than steroid ingestion, had nothing to do with the way he made her feel.
She knew it wasn't the tattoos, which she'd seen in the summer when Jorge wore short-sleeved shirts. His bulging arms were covered with them, and they weren't particularly imaginative. Typical
jailhouse fare, Sally told herself: snakes and spiders and skulls and weeping eyes. The rooster was supposedly concealed underneath Jorge's shirts, and Sally hadn't seen it.
For some reason, contemplating Jorge's tattoos caused Sally to breathe a little faster. To take her mind off them, she opened the bottom drawer of her desk and looked for a Hershey bar. Thank God there was one in there. She was reaching for it when someone came into the office.
She sat up, regretting (and not for the first time) her open-door policy. She closed the drawer quickly without grabbing the Hershey bar and turned guiltily toward the door. Anna Trojan was standing there, looking uncertainly at her department chair.
There was nothing unusual in that. Anna Trojan was small and mousey, with gray hair and sallow skin. She always wore gray clothes that were nearly the same shade as her hair, and she looked uncertainly at everyone: students, faculty, and administration. Sally thought that Anna probably looked uncertainly at her own reflection in the mirror.
Anna was the oldest member of the department, though Sally didn't know exactly how old that was. She'd never bothered to look at the personnel records and find out. It had never seemed important.
“What can I do for you, Anna?” Sally said, trying to look like a professional educator instead of someone who'd just been diving for a Hershey bar.
“I think the students are making fun of me,” Anna said.
Uncertainly, of course.
Sally straightened in her chair. “I'm sure you're mistaken,” she said.
“Well, I could be, of course. Maybe they weren't, after all.” Anna turned to go. “I'm sorry I bothered you.”
“Wait,” Sally said. She hadn't meant to brush Anna off. “Come in and have a seat. Let's talk about this.”
Anna turned back to the office. “Well, if you're sure it's no bother.”
“No bother at all,” Sally said.
She got up and moved a stack of papers from the chair beside her desk. According to Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, the great man had always had trouble keeping things in their proper places. In his vain but commendable attempt to achieve moral perfection, orderliness had given him considerable trouble. Sally took as much comfort as she could from that fact.
“Have a seat,” Sally said, putting the papers on an old typing table that was already covered with other papers, a few desk copies of textbooks, and a box of pencils, not to mention an electric typewriter that hadn't been out from under its cover since Sally had moved into the office. She wasn't even sure it still worked, not that it mattered.
Anna sat in the chair and crossed her hands in her lap as she waited for Sally to sit back down.
“Now then,” Sally said when she had returned to her place, “what seems to be the trouble?”
“I think the students are making fun of me,” Anna repeated. “But I'm probably wrong.”
“Maybe,” Sally said. “But why do you think so?”
“Well,” Anna said, as uncertainly as ever, “this morning there were several students making noise in the hallway while I was teaching my eight o'clock class. They were right outside my door, and I thought at first they'd go away. But they didn't. After a few minutes, I stepped outside and asked them to be quiet.”
“And they weren't?” Sally said.
“Oh, no, they got quiet. But just as I was closing my door, I thought I heard one of them say, âWho was that old lady?'”
“I see,” Sally said, though she really didn't. If the worst thing students these days called you was an old lady, you could consider yourself lucky.
“And that's not all,” Anna said.
“They called you something else?”
“No. Not them. It was my students. The ones in my class.”
“The ones who are making fun of you?”
“They might not be making fun of me. You said so yourself. I could have been mistaken.”
Sally repressed a sigh. “Tell me what they said.”
“It wasn't what they said so much,” Anna told her. “It was the way they said it.”
“And how was that?”
“It's my name,” Anna said. “They were saying it funny.”
“They were calling you âAnna'?”
“No, they were calling me Ms. Trojan. But there was something about the way they were saying it.”
Sally could hardly believe Anna's puzzlement, though it seemed genuine enough. How anyone with the name of Trojan could go through life without having been made aware of its association with a popular brand of condoms was a mystery.
Or maybe I'm just more sophisticated than I give myself credit for,
She was trying to think of a good way to explain things to Anna when Troy Beauchamp, the school gossip, came down the hall and turned straight into the office.
Troy was a sloppy dresser, and today he looked particularly harried. His shirttail bagged out over the top of his pants, and his tie was askew. He came to an abrupt stop when he saw Anna.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn't know anyone was in here.”
“I'll be with you in a few minutes, Troy,” Sally said. “Would you mind waiting in the hall? And close the door, please.”
“I, uh, this is really important news,” Troy said.
Everything Troy found out was important, at least to him. He loved being the first to know everything, and he always regarded his latest tidbit as at least as important as the most recent news from Washington, Russia, or the Vatican. He reminded Sally of Emmeline Grangerford, one of the minor characters in
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Whenever someone died, Emmeline was the first person to arrive at the house after the doctor. Except once. That time the undertaker got there ahead of her, and after that she just pined away. Sally was sure that if anyone ever got to a piece of
gossip before Troy, the same thing would happen to him.
“I'm sure your news can wait,” Sally told Troy.
“No,” Troy said. “It can't. Ralph Bostic has been murdered!”
“What?” Anna said, aghast. She was aghast almost as frequently as she was uncertain. “Isn't he one of the college's trustees?”
“That's right,” Troy said, looking at her as if he might be wondering just how many people named
she could possibly know. “And you'll never guess who killed him.”
“President Fieldstone?” Sally said.
“Good guess,” Troy said approvingly. President Fieldstone's relationship with the board of trustees had been somewhat rocky of late. “But wrong. It's a lot worse than that.”
“It couldn't possibly be worse than that,” Sally said.
Troy looked somber. “Oh, yes, it could,” he said.
Sally didn't know how, but she was sure of one thing: Troy was going to be the first to tell her.
ack Neville sat at his office desk, staring at the seventeen-inch screen of his computer monitor. Jack had been in recovery for several days, working on his own little twelve-step program, and he'd finally overcome his addiction to playing Minesweeper on his computer. It hadn't been easy, and he wasn't at all sure how long he could keep himself busy with other things, but so far he'd been able to resist the compelling lure of the game.
There was only one problem: To break himself of the Minesweeper habit, he'd resorted to trying another game, a form of solitaire called Freecell. And now he was in serious danger of becoming addicted to that.
He knew the signs: there was the nearly uncontrollable urge to see the cards fly into place when he made the final correct move, the sweaty desire to see if he could finish the game without once having to pause to think, the powerful craving to experience the thrill of seeing ten moves in advance that everything was going to fall exactly into place. Not to mention the desire to see if he could extend his winning streak, which currently stood at seventy-three games in a row. Not that he was counting.
Jack's hand gripped the computer mouse, and his right index finger trembled as he tried to keep it from double-clicking on the Freecell icon that was so enticingly displayed on the monitor.
he told himself.
You know you have other things to do, important departmental business.
He eased the cursor down to the word-processing icon, and he double-clicked the mouse. The clean white sheet of virtual paper filled the screen, and Jack allowed himself to relax. The crisis was over. For now, at least.
He located the folder where he kept his course syllabi and opened it. Then he opened the file for his American literature course. It had been a couple of years since he'd updated the syllabus, and it was time to revise it and turn it in to Wynona Reed, the academic dean's secretary.
Hughes Community College was going to be visited by its accrediting agency in a few months, and everyone was supposed to have turned in updated syllabi for all classes by the time of the visit. Jack had been putting off the chore for several weeks, since revising a syllabus was roughly as interesting as watching concrete harden, but now he was glad to have something to distract him from Freecell.
Of course there were plenty of other things to distract him if he let them. For one thing, he'd actually gotten up the nerve to ask Sally Good for a date, and she'd surprised him by accepting. In fact, she'd said she'd be glad to go out with him.
But he wasn't sure he believed it. Maybe she'd accepted just so she wouldn't hurt his feelings. Or maybe it was because they'd just been through a pretty harrowing experience, what with the murder of Val Hurley, the art department chair, and all that went along with it.
She was probably already regretting that she'd accepted, he thought. He knew very well the kinds of complications that could arise from dating her, and he knew she must be aware of them as well. In fact, she was probably a lot more aware of them than he was.
There were people who'd say he was dating her only to improve his position in the department, to get a better schedule, and to get more chances to teach the coveted sophomore literature classes. Ellen Baldree would be the first one to say something like that, Jack was certain. She wouldn't say it to Jack, of course, but she'd
say it to anyone else who'd listen. And there were plenty of people who'd listen.
Jack tried to concentrate on his syllabus and forget about playing Freecell or dating his department chair, but he found it impossible to be very much concerned about whether to leave Melville out of the syllabus again or whether Poe really deserved three days of classroom time, especially if Melville were eliminated entirely. It didn't seem fair to eliminate Melville, somehow, but Jack didn't really care. He didn't like the selections by Melville in the text, and there was no way his students would read
He might as well ask them to read the entire
in ancient Greek.
He made a few minor changes, saved them, and closed the file on the syllabus. Maybe he could focus on something else. He was very interested in the popular culture of the 1950s, and he'd written several articles in the field. The articles hadn't been published in reputable scholarly journals, but no one at Hughes cared about that sort of thing. Teachers at Hughes were supposed to teach, and if they found time to write, well, that was fine. But publications weren't even considered when a person was up for tenure. Student evaluations were a lot more important in the community college scheme of things than published articles.
That was fine with Jack. He could write about things that interested him and publish wherever he wanted to, or wherever he could get something accepted.
He'd been working on an article about the Kingston Trio, the group that had sold millions of albums and started the so-called folk revival in the late 1950s. His thesis was that the Trio's original members, Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds, had been far more influential than they had ever received credit for, and that in fact their music and style had had even more significant and long-lasting repercussions in popular music than anything the Beatles had done.
He had a feeling that no one would agree with him, except maybe a few die-hard Kingston Trio fanatics, assuming such people existed, but if he could make his arguments strong and cogent
kind of publications he submitted his work to liked controversy. It sold magazines, and it usually brought in a lot of letters from readers.
He opened his KT file and started reading. What he'd done so far seemed pretty good to him, and for at least ten minutes he forgot his worries about dating Sally Good. He even managed to forget the Freecell game.
Then there was a knock on his door. He got up and opened it reluctantly. He didn't want to have to spend a half hour explaining to some wayward student why there was no extra-credit work allowed in his classes, why pop quizzes could not be “made up” at a later date, or why term papers written in pencil on both sides of the paper simply weren't acceptable.
As it turned out, he wasn't going to have to do any of those things. Standing outside his office door was Eric Desmond, the chief of Hughes Community College's security services. The head cop. He was nearly sixty, but he didn't look a day over forty, possibly because he was a fitness fanatic. Or maybe he just had good genes. At any rate, Jack knew that Desmond worked out religiously, and he took all kinds of herbal supplements and vitamins. Maybe some of them were working.
“What's up, Chief?” Jack said by way of greeting.
“There's someone here who wants to talk to you,” Desmond said, glancing back over his shoulder.
Desmond wasn't alone. Standing behind him was Detective Weems of the local police, with whom Jack had recently become acquainted under what Jack considered thoroughly unpleasant circumstances.
Weems probably wanted to talk about Val Hurley's murder, Jack thought, though all that should have been wrapped up some time ago.
“Come on in,” Jack said, moving away from the door to make as much room as he could. His office couldn't be called spacious by any means, but there was space in it for three adults if they didn't mind a little crowding.
Desmond stepped inside, and Weems followed, closing the door behind him. Weems was tall, thick through the waist, and didn't dress nearly as well as Desmond. He clearly didn't place the same premium on fitness that Desmond did, and he probably didn't take herbal supplements, either. The office suddenly seemed much smaller to Jack.
“I'm sorry I can't offer both of you chairs,” he said. There was only one chair in the office besides the one behind his desk.
“That's all right,” Weems said, looking disdainfully at the stuffed bookshelves on the wall. “We don't mind standing.”
“What can I do for you?” Jack said.
Weems smiled unpleasantly, which Jack thought was probably the only way he knew how to smile.
“You can tell me why you killed Ralph Bostic,” he said.