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Authors: Bill Crider

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BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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I
t's Jack Neville,” Troy Beauchamp said. “The fuzz are busting him right now.”
Sally was a little too young ever to have heard anyone say “the fuzz are busting him” before, but she knew what Troy meant. And she didn't believe it for a second.
“You're joking,” she said.
“No, no. I wouldn't joke about a thing like that,” Troy assured her.
“I should hope not,” Anna Trojan said. “But I hope you know that ‘busting' isn't correct English, Troy. You should say bursting. As English teachers, we have to remember that we're role models for our students.”
For about a millionth of a second, the image of the police bursting Jack flashed through Sally's mind. It was funny and scary at the same time.
“Where is this supposed to be happening?” she asked.
“Jack's office,” Troy said. “I was on my way here to tell you that someone had killed Bostic when I saw the fuzz at Jack's office. My shoelace was flopping on the floor, so I had to stop by the door and tie it. I heard them accuse Jack of killing Bostic.”
Sally could easily picture Troy bending over to listen outside the office door. For him, it wouldn't be unusual behavior at all. It was no wonder that he was always first to know things.
“What did the policemen look like?” she asked.
“One of them was Eric Desmond. I didn't know the other one, but I saw him around when Val Hurley was killed.”
“Tall?” Sally said. “Stout? Not a happy man?”
“That's the one,” Troy said.
“Weems,” Sally said. “Good lord. And you're sure Ralph Bostic was murdered?”
“Positive. I heard about it on the radio when I was driving in this morning. He was found at his auto shop, slumped over his desk with a knife sticking out of his back.”
“Maybe he didn't fix someone's car correctly,” Anna said. “I remember once when I took my car there to get a tune-up. I got a bill for nearly five hundred dollars.”
“I don't think anyone would kill him for overcharging,” Troy said.
Sally wasn't so sure. She'd heard stories about Bostic's business practices before. But Jack, who wasn't known for being a big spender, would never take his car to someone like Bostic. On the other hand, Jack and Bostic had clashed over other matters involving Bostic's professional life.
“I'd better get down to Jack's office,” she said. “I'm his department chair, after all.”
“It's too late for Jack,” Troy said, shaking his head sadly, as if his colleague had already been tried, convicted, and sent to death row to wait for the gurney that would wheel him into the room to receive his lethal injection. “Once the fuzz get their hands on you, it's all over.”
“Not this time,” Sally said. “Anna, we'll deal with your students later. I'm sorry, but this situation is something that won't wait.”
“I understand,” Anna said. “I'm sure that no one wants the fuzz to burst anyone around here.”
“Right,” Sally said, standing up. She really, really needed a Hershey bar. “Excuse me, Troy.”
She brushed past him and went out the office door, not running
but hurrying right along. She heard Troy right behind her. She should have known that he wasn't going to miss something like this, not if he could help it. She picked up her pace, and when she turned the corner of the hall, she ran right into Jorge Rodriguez.
Jorge wrapped his arms around her to keep her from falling and held her to him for just a fraction of a second. But in that fraction, Sally realized just how strong Jorge's arms were and how solid his chest was. There were some people, Sally knew, who opposed letting prison inmates have access to fitness equipment, but she wasn't one of them. She could see and feel what that access had done for Jorge, and she definitely approved. At least she did as long as she could believe that Jorge's physique owed everything to hours on the Nautilus machine and nothing to steroid abuse.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” Jorge asked as he released Sally on her own recognizance.
“Jack's office,” Troy Beauchamp said.
He was standing right behind Sally with a look of disapproval on his face. Sally hadn't been at Hughes long before she learned that while quite a few of the women on campus found Jorge dangerously interesting, most of the men tended to avoid him.
Jorge was the campus liaison with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division. In other words, he worked with the college's prison programs, a job made to order for a former inmate who had rehabilitated himself through education while serving his sentence for murder. No one was quite sure just how the murder had occurred, and it was the subject of any number of rumors, some of which cast Jorge in the role of a practically blameless avenging angel. Others were not nearly so flattering. Sally occasionally wondered what the truth was; at other times, she was convinced that she didn't really want to know.
“What's the problem with Jack?” Jorge asked.
“I'm not sure,” Sally said, with a glance back at Troy. “Maybe nothing.”
“In other words, it's private departmental business.”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“Well, then, I'll leave you to it,” Jorge said. “If there's anything I can do, let me know.”
“I will,” Sally said, though she wasn't sure what Jorge could do. On the other hand, if Jack's trouble really did involve murder, Jorge might be just the person to talk to.
“We'd better hurry,” Troy said, and Sally moved away from Jorge. She couldn't resist a look back over her shoulder as he turned the corner.
“I wonder where he was when Bostic was killed?” Troy said.
“Do you think he might have done it?”
Troy shrugged. “Well, you know how Bostic felt about the prison program.”
Sally knew, though it hadn't occurred to her. Bostic believed that weight-lifting equipment wasn't the only thing inmates shouldn't have access to. He didn't think they should have access to television, air-conditioning, or free medical care. And he especially didn't think they should have access to education. In spite of all the studies that showed education was just about the only effective method of reducing recidivism, Bostic was a zealous and vocal opponent of the college's classes in the prison units.
“If Bostic had his way, Jorge would be out of a job,” Troy pointed out.
“So would several of our faculty members,” Sally said. “We make quite a bit of money from those prison classes. It's a classic win-win situation: We profit financially, and the prisoners profit from their educations.”
“That's not the way Bostic sees it,” Troy said. “Or
saw
it, to use the correct verb tense.”
Sally remembered some of Bostic's more intemperate comments during his campaign for the college board of trustees. One of them had to do with the fact that instead of helping the greater human community by teaching in the prisons, Hughes was “just helping produce a more educated criminal class that will know more ways of getting away with their crimes.”
Jorge had been especially proud of the computer classes in the prisons, but Bostic had objected to those more loudly than to any others. He saw them as “just a way to train crooks to steal from you over the Internet. They'll get your credit cards and your Social Security numbers, and the next thing you know they'll
be
you. Either that, or they'll set one of those viruses loose and destroy your financial records.”
Nevertheless, Sally didn't think Bostic's opinions, as wrongheaded as they were, could have been a reason for Jorge to kill someone, and she said as much to Troy.
“Well,” Troy said, “he's done it before.”
Sally didn't have a comeback for that. She knocked on the door of Jack's office, but there was no answer. She knocked again, and then used her pass key. The door swung open, but there was no one inside.
J
ack was familiar with the phrase
taken in for questioning
only from television and the movies, but he wasn't surprised to learn that in real life, things went pretty much as they did on screen.
He was escorted outside the classroom building and put into an unmarked car. All he could think of at the time was how glad he was that classes were going on, so both the hall outside his office and the parking lot were practically deserted. It was bad enough that Chief Desmond had to see his humiliation. At least there were no students to witness it.
He hadn't been handcuffed. That was another thing to be grateful for. Maybe that meant that Weems didn't think he was dangerous, which of course he wasn't. Sure, he'd killed a roach or two, and once he'd run over a turtle that was trying to cross a freeway, but he'd done it only because there was a car right beside him that prevented him from swerving aside. He'd felt terrible about it for days afterward. And he didn't even especially like turtles.
He hadn't especially liked Ralph Bostic, either. Everyone knew that Bostic was a crook, or at least a cheat, notorious for overcharging anyone who made the mistake of taking an automobile to his shop for repair. Jack disliked Bostic for similar reasons, all right, but maybe Weems wouldn't ask him about those.
Or maybe he would. Jack made no attempt to engage the detective in conversation as they drove to the police station, and
Weems didn't seem inclined to talk. The silence grew heavy, and Jack started feeling guilty, which he figured was exactly the way Weems had planned things. Knowing that, however, didn't help matters. Jack began to recall all his many sins, while trying to balance them with his few virtues.
There was the turtle, of course, accident or not. And there was the time he'd sneaked into the movie theater without paying when a friend opened the exit door and let him inside. He knew he'd made more than one rolling stop in his time, and he exceeded the speed limit nearly every time he got on the highway, even though he told himself that he did so merely to keep from being run over and flattened by the eighteen-wheelers that were exceeding it more than he was. As far as he could remember, he'd never stolen anything, though he might have taken a comic book from a grocery store rack when he was a kid. He just wasn't sure. But if he had, it had happened only once. He'd never sexually harassed his female students, or the male ones, either, for that matter, and he'd always graded them strictly on the merits of their work rather than allowing any personal prejudices to interfere. And he'd certainly never killed anyone.
Not that Weems would believe that.
The detective continued to ignore him as he drove the car around to the back of the building that housed the town's new police station and jail. Jack had never even thought about the police station as having a rear entrance, but he had a feeling he was going to learn a lot more about the place than he wanted to know.
They got out of the car and Weems led Jack inside the building. As they walked through an echoing hallway, a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit stepped aside to let them pass. Jack knew the man must be a prisoner, a trusty who was allowed a little freedom because of his good behavior. Or at least Jack hoped that's what he was, and not some crazed escapee. Weems nodded to the man and seemed to know him, and Jack considered that a good sign.
He didn't consider it a good sign, however, when Weems
opened a door and said, “Here's the interview room. Just step inside, please.”
The room was even more uncomfortable than an adjunct instructor's office. It was furnished with a little wooden table and a couple of beat-up folding chairs. Jack wondered why they hadn't bought new furniture when they'd built the jail. Or maybe they had. Maybe it just suffered from hard use.
“Have a seat,” Weems told him.
Jack sat at the table in the less rickety-looking of the two chairs. There was a little metal ashtray on the table. Jack noted that it was far too small for use as a weapon.
“Smoke if you want to,” Weems said.
“I don't smoke,” Jack said, trying to relax in the chair, which wasn't easy. Every time he moved, even a little bit, the chair gave out with a metallic squeal.
Weems leaned up against the wall, looking as casual as if he questioned murder suspects every day. There was a thick mirrored glass set into the wall beside him. Jack knew it wasn't a mirror from the other side.
Weems saw where Jack was looking and nodded at the glass.
“That's right,” he said. “It's a two-way mirror. There's somebody watching from the other side, and everything you say is being recorded. But you knew that already.”
Actually, Jack hadn't known about the recording, and he wasn't sure he believed it even now, but he didn't say anything.
“Everybody thinks they know every damn thing these days,” Weems went on. Jack didn't bother to correct his error in pronoun-antecedent agreement. “It's television. They watch some idiotic cop show like
Nash Bridges,
and they think that's the way things really work.”
“They don't?” Jack said.
Weems looked at him with thinly disguised contempt.
“Of course they don't.”
Jack didn't really care, so he sat there, looking at the mirror and
wondering who was behind it. After a while he said, “Aren't you going to read me my rights?”
“See?” Weems said. “Television.”
“You don't have to read me my rights?”
“Not if we're just having a little friendly conversation here. And that's what we're having, right?”
“Sure,” Jack said, without enthusiasm, looking at the mirror. “Who's going to be the good cop?”
“That's a joke, right? Because of what I said about TV? But it's not as funny as you think. See, this is such a small town that we can't afford a good cop and a bad cop for questioning a suspect. I have to be the good cop and bad cop both.”
“I'll write a letter to my city councilperson about increasing police salaries.”
“That's a fine idea. I could use the extra money. But it won't do you any good to try sucking up to me. So tell me, why did you kill Ralph Bostic?”
“I didn't kill anybody,” Jack said. He put his forearms on the table and leaned forward. There were several spots that looked like blood near the ashtray, but Jack thought they might be ketchup. He hoped they were, at any rate. “I told you at the school. I didn't even know Bostic was dead. I still don't.”
“It's been on the radio,” Weems said. “If it's been on the radio, he must be dead. The news media doesn't make mistakes like that.”
“Look,” Jack said, refraining from telling Weems that
media
required a plural verb, “I'm a law-abiding guy. I was a big help to you the last time you had a murder case, remember. I
like
the police.”
That wasn't strictly true, but it seemed like the right thing to say. It also wasn't strictly true that Jack had been a big help to Weems. Sally Good deserved most of the credit, if not all of it. But Jack thought he might work his way into Weems's good graces by reminding him of the Val Hurley case.
It didn't work.
“You were more of a hindrance than anything,” Weems said. “If
you and Sally Good had stayed out of my way, I'd have arrested the killer a lot sooner.”
Wow,
Jack thought.
Talk about not strictly true!
Left alone, Weems would probably have arrested the wrong person, and even that would have taken him months.
“What makes you think I killed Bostic, anyway?” Jack asked. “I haven't even seen him in weeks.”
“You sure about that?”
“Of course I'm sure.”
“You didn't see him any more recently than that? Like last night?”
“No, I didn't see him last night. Is that when he was killed?”
“You should know.”
Jack took a deep breath and leaned back. The chair squealed, and Jack thought it was going to fall over. He grabbed at the seat to steady himself.
Weems watched impassively, but Jack was sure he was laughing on the inside. The flimsy chair was all part of the set-up, like the ketchup stains and the one-way glass, all of it designed to make Jack feel uncomfortable and guilty. Well, it wasn't working. He'd felt guilty in the car, but now he was just feeling angry.
“Why won't you answer my questions?” he asked. “I have a right to know what's going on here.”
“You're being questioned,” Weems said. “About the murder of Ralph Bostic. You say you're not guilty. I think you are. That's about the size of it.”
“Why do you think I'm guilty?”
“Where were you last night?”
Jack sighed. It was clear that he wasn't going to get any real answers unless he did some talking of his own, so he decided to cooperate. To a certain extent.
“What time?” he asked.
“Let's say between nine and ten o'clock.”
“All right. Let's say that. Between nine and ten o'clock last night, I was at home.”
“Alone?”
“That's right. Home alone. Sounds like a good title for a movie, doesn't it.”
“Movie?”
“Never mind,” Jack said.
Jack liked movies, but Weems probably hadn't been to one since he was a kid and his mother dumped him off at the mall theater while she went shopping for Christmas gifts.
“So you were watching a movie?” Weems said.
“No,” Jack told him. “I was reading a book.”
“Was it
Beowulf
by any chance?”
“Huh?”

Beowulf
. You've heard of it, right?”
“Sure. I was just surprised to hear you mention it.”
“I'm not just some uneducated jerk, you know,” Weems said. “People think that about cops, but it's not true. There's this new translation of
Beowulf
that I was reading last week. It's pretty good.”
“I've read it,” Jack said. If Weems was being the good cop now, Jack was willing to play along. “And I agree. But I wasn't reading it last night. I was reading a biography of Walt Whitman.”
“Never cared for him,” Weems said. “I don't much like free verse. So that's it? That's your alibi? You were at home reading a book about Walt Whitman?”
Jack could just imagine how an alibi like that would be regarded by a tough prosecutor. Or even a namby-pamby one, if there was such a thing.
“That's it,” he said.
“Then things don't look too good for you,” Weems said.
“Why not? What in the world makes you think I killed Ralph Bostic?”
“Because you didn't like him.”
Well, that was true. Jack couldn't very well deny it. But he wondered how Weems knew it.
“Everybody knows about it,” Weems said, as if reading Jack's mind.
Jack thought it was just another cop trick, like the chair and the mirror and the stains. But if it was, it was a pretty good one.
“It was even in the paper,” Weems said. “You had a big argument at the last meeting of the college board of trustees, even got into a little yelling match.”
Jack had been hoping Weems didn't know about the yelling. But he couldn't deny it. Not entirely.
“I wasn't doing any yelling,” he said.
Weems shrugged. “Maybe so, maybe not, but Bostic was. Nearly had a stroke, the way I heard it.”
“It wasn't quite that bad,” Jack said.
“Yeah, well, if somebody had accused me of being a crook in front of everybody, including a reporter from the local rag, I might even have a stroke myself.”
Jack didn't believe that for a minute. He was pretty sure that nothing bothered Weems that much.
“I didn't exactly accuse him of being a crook,” he said.
“Sure you did. You said he had a big conflict of interest, that he was gouging the college for money, and that he should resign from the board. But he didn't resign, so you got rid of him another way. By killing him.”
“You keep saying that, but I don't think you have any proof,” Jack said. “Otherwise we wouldn't be having this friendly conversation, as you called it. You'd have arrested me and locked me up.”
“I have the proof,” Weems assured him. “It would just make things easier if you'd admit it.”
“Well, I'm not,” Jack said. “Mainly because I didn't do it.”
Weems shook his head sadly.
BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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