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Authors: Bill Crider

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BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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S
ally was correcting papers when Jack came into her office, though her mind wasn't really on the job. Fortunately that didn't matter much with multiple-choice tests. She shoved the papers aside, getting them mixed up with another set. Oh, well. She could sort them out later.
“You don't look happy,” she said as Jack plopped himself down in the chair beside her desk.
“I'm not.” He proceeded to tell her what had happened in Fieldstone's office.
“I'm not surprised,” Sally said when he was done.
“Me neither. Just a little disappointed.”
“You have to try to see it from their perspective.”
Jack stiffened and straightened in the chair. Then he relaxed and smiled.
“For a second there I thought you were serious,” he said. “I thought you'd be more upset than this.”
“I'm upset. Don't think I'm not. How dare they tell me what to do about one of my own faculty members without consulting me!”
“Have they actually told you yet?”
“No, but I'm sure they'll get around to it. Why don't we go have some lunch so they can't get me on the phone?”
“Good idea,” Jack said. “We can eat in the cafeteria. That'll get me in the mood for prison food.”
“Now who's not being serious?”
“Gallows humor,” Jack said. “I'm getting pretty good at it.”
“Not as good as you think,” Sally told him.
 
The cafeteria's Friday specials offered a choice between fish sticks, cole slaw, and french fries, or a chopped barbecue beef sandwich with potato salad on the side.
“Talk about the horns of a dilemma,” Jack said as he looked at the menu board.
Sally wasn't impressed by the choices either, but she went for the sandwich. That way she didn't have to deal with nearly as much grease. Or so she thought until she got the sandwich, which was mostly fat and gristle.
Jack got a sandwich, too, and joined Sally at a Formica-topped table. He sat down and looked around the cafeteria. It was very quiet. There were only two other people in sight, both of them part-time instructors. Jack opened up his sandwich and looked inside.
“And they wonder why so few people eat here,” he said.
“It could be worse,” Sally said.
“It could?”
“We could get ptomaine from the potato salad.”
Jack looked at the salad, which was a bright yellow with green chunks that might have been pickles.
“Prison food might not be so bad after all,” he said.
“No more prison jokes,” Sally ordered. “You're not going to prison, and that's that.”
“Dean Naylor feels the same way. He's sure that Weems is going to have this murder solved by Monday. I'll bet he hopes so, but I have my doubts. I'm going to drop a couple of reams of notes for my classes on his desk before I go home this afternoon.”
“That'll teach him.”
“OK, so it's petty. I admit it. But I'm feeling petty about now.”
Sally took a bite of her sandwich. It wasn't quite as bad as it looked. But it wasn't good. She chewed it thoroughly.
“You'll get over it,” she said when she could talk again.
“Maybe,” Jack mumbled, his mouth half-full of sandwich. “Maybe not. Weems has me down as the killer. He's not going to look very hard for anyone else.”
“Then I guess we'll have to,” Sally said.
“I don't think Weems would appreciate our help.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Not as much as going to prison.”
“So what do you say?”
“I guess Weems could use our able assistance. That still doesn't mean he's going to like it.”
“I can deal with that.”
“Then so can I.”
“Fine,” Sally said. “Let's get started.”
“Aren't you going to finish your sandwich?”
“I don't think so.”
“Me neither,” Jack said.
 
The college was very quiet. A former dean had once said that you could shoot a shotgun down the hallway of any building on the Hughes campus on any given Friday afternoon and not hit a soul. Sally could vouch for the truth of that, though she often stayed in her office to get all her papers graded before she left for the weekend. English teachers, even if they were teaching only three classes, which was her load, always had a lot of grading to do. She often wondered how those who taught the regular load of five classes could keep up. And because the school allowed faculty members to teach an extra class, the ones who really needed the money taught six classes. Sally's mind reeled when she thought of all the papers that someone teaching six classes would have to read and mark, but somehow everyone managed to do it, and to do a good job.
“Where do we start?” Jack asked when they were seated in Sally's office.
“What was it Alice said?” Sally asked.
“Alice? Who's Alice?”
“Alice in Wonderland.”
“Oh. What's she got to do with this?”
“You asked where we should start, which is what my students always want to know about their essays. I usually give them Alice's advice.”
“I'm with you now,” Jack said. “It's something about ‘you begin at the beginning and keep on going until you come to the end; then you stop.'”
“Close enough,” Sally said. “A lot better than my students. Most of them have never heard of Alice in Wonderland.”
“I know what you mean. Most of mine haven't even heard about Harry Potter, but that's what makes our jobs so interesting. Anyway, where's the beginning of our problem? Or maybe I should say
my
problem.”
Sally thought about that. She said, “Why don't we start with the knife-making class? Whatever possessed you to make a knife? And I want a straight answer this time.”
“It all started with a book,” Jack said. “I'm an English teacher, after all, and I read a lot, unlike most of our students. In fact, you could say I became an English teacher because I liked to read so much.”
“It happens to a lot of us,” Sally said, “but we spend so much time grading papers and teaching classes and preparing to teach classes that we hardly ever have time to read.”
“Not me. I always make time to read, no matter what.”
“Good. I do, too. What was the name of the book?”
“The Iron Mistress.
It's by Paul Wellman. He also wrote
The Comancheros.”
“Wasn't that a John Wayne movie?”
“Right. A long time ago. You've probably seen it on TV.” Jack grew animated. “There's a great scene where Wayne, Stuart Whitman,
and Wayne's son, Patrick, are hunkered down behind an overturned wagon or something, and they're all firing at the bad guys, who come charging at the wagon and jump over it on their horses, and—”
“And Whitman, Wayne, and young Patrick whirl around and drop all three of them,” Sally finished.
“That's right! Great scene, just great.”
“But it's not from
The Iron Mistress.

“Nope. That was a movie, too, though, even longer ago than
The Comancheros.
It starred Alan Ladd.”
“I vaguely remember him.”
“He was short,” Jack said. “But then what Hollywood star isn't?”
“John Wayne?”
“Right. Anyway,
The Iron Mistress
is about Jim Bowie.”
“Now we're getting somewhere,” Sally said. “You read about Jim Bowie, the testosterone started flowing, and you decided you had to make your own Bowie knife.”
“Well, that's not exactly right. But I guess it's close enough. The college was offering the course in the continuing ed department, and I thought ‘Why not?' How was I to know that the knife would end up in Ralph Bostic's back?”
Sally didn't like to think about that part of it, and she was sure Jack didn't, either. It was hard to believe that a knife Jack had made with his own hands had been used to murder someone, but that was what had happened.
“Tell me about the knife,” she said.
“It wasn't easy to make, that's for sure. The class lasted twelve weeks, and we started out by getting our materials. We were given the choice of using old chainsaw blades or leaf springs from junked cars, because springs and chainsaw blades are both made out of good-quality steel. I used a leaf spring. I had to draw the knife on the spring, grind it to shape, temper it—did you know that when you heat metal hot enough, it's not magnetic? That's how you know when you've gotten it hot enough. Anyway—”
“Never mind,” Sally said, a little surprised at Jack's enthusiasm.
“I think I have the general idea. Now all we have to do is figure out how the knife got from your office into Bostic's back. Where did you keep the knife?”
“I was sort of proud of it. It looked a lot better than I thought it would. I made the handle out of—”
“Never mind about the handle. You're like a freshman writer who can't stick to the outline.”
Jack looked chastened, and Sally was sorry she'd said anything. It was nice to see someone get enthusiastic about something he'd created.
“I didn't mean to criticize,” she said.
“Well, you're right. I'm getting way off the subject. I kept the knife right out on the desk where I could see it, and where other people could see it, too. I guess I was hoping someone would ask me about it.” Jack smiled sheepishly. “As you can tell, I like talking about it. That's probably why I put my initials on the blade, too. I wish I hadn't done that.”
“When did the knife disappear?” Sally asked.
“It was about three weeks ago,” Jack said. “I came back from class one day, and it wasn't there. Anyone could have stopped by my office and slipped it under a shirt or in a purse and been out of there. It wouldn't have taken more than a few seconds.”
“You said you put it on the desk so other people would ask you about it. Didn't you think that might be dangerous? What if an irate student had grabbed it and sliced you up with it?”
“I don't usually have any irate students,” Jack said.
That was true, Sally reflected. She might have complaints about some of her other faculty members, but no one ever had a problem with Jack. His student evaluations were always highly favorable, and students flocked to his classes. That wasn't true of other faculty members she could name, some of whom were jealous of the fact that Jack never had to worry about filling his classes.
“You're lucky,” she said. “But it was still dangerous. Did anyone ever mention the knife?”
“There weren't many who did,” Jack said. “I was a little disappointed.”
Sally smiled. “As I'd say to my freshmen, be more specific.”
“Right. Let's see. You never asked about it, that's for sure.”
“I'm not very interested in knives.”
“I don't blame you. I wish I hadn't been. Jorge Rodriguez was, though. He stopped by one day, and we must've talked for half an hour. He knew a little about knife-making.”
Sally couldn't help but be curious. “He did?”
“It's something that interests a lot of inmates,” Jack said. “They make them out of just about everything: spoons, pieces of wire, plastic combs, you name it.”
“Oh,” Sally said.
“Jorge and Bostic didn't like each other much, did they,” Jack said.
“No,” Sally said. “They didn't get along at all.”
O
f course nobody really liked Bostic,” Jack said.”So there's no need to start thinking that Jorge might've killed him.”
Sally knew that, but she couldn't help it. There was a definite flaw in her character when it came to Jorge. On the one hand, she was attracted to him; on the other hand, she was sure she shouldn't be, and she was automatically suspicious of him when bad things happened.
“There's Roy Don Talon, for one,” Sally said, trying to get her mind off Jorge. She went on to tell Jack what she'd learned from Wynona. “I wonder who we could ask about that.”
“How about Talon?”
Sally wasn't sure she wanted to be so direct. Talon was on the college board of trustees, after all, and Fieldstone frowned on faculty members talking about school matters with members of the board. She said as much to Jack.
“You're right about that,” he agreed. “Fieldstone made it pretty clear to me in his office that he didn't want the college to be involved in this in any way. If we talk to Talon, he'll probably just throw us out of his office, and then he'll be on the phone to Fieldstone tattling on us before the door swings shut.”
Sally thought about that, and something else occurred to her, something she should have thought of before.
“That contract Bostic had to repair the college vehicles,” she
said. “Surely the board should have known about it. Those things aren't secrets. A. B. D. shouldn't have had to tell them about it.”
“You're right again,” Jack said. “Of course, stuff like that can be buried in documents and double-talk if you handle it right. So it's barely possible that none of the board knew.”
Sally didn't really believe that. Someone knew. Someone had worked it out and gotten it approved. The business manager surely must have known. He had to approve all the contracts. Sally didn't like the direction her thoughts were taking her, but she had to voice them.
“Fieldstone knew,” she said. “He knows everything. And Hal Kaul knew.”
Kaul was the business manager. He was a short man with thinning, straw-colored hair, and he always had a pencil stuck behind one ear. No one had ever seen him use the pencil. He did all his writing with a ballpoint pen that he kept in his shirt pocket. Nevertheless, the pencil was always there.
“There might be ways to get things done without Kaul or Fieldstone knowing,” Jack said.
“There might be, but someone had to get it done.”
“That's an angle to look at, then. It's all pretty ironic, isn't it?”
“In what way?”
“Bostic won his board seat by telling everybody that he stood for fiscal responsibility. He said he was going to see to it that the college was run like a business. And now we know he was guilty of profiteering at the college's expense.”
“And you're surprised?”
“Not really. Besides, he made good on his promise, at least partially. He was running the vehicle repairs like a business. His business, that is.”
“Do you think that's why he was killed?” Sally asked.
“It could be, but you're forgetting something. Fieldstone might be right.”
“About what?”
“This murder might not have anything to do with the college.
Bostic must have had enemies all over town, given the kind of person he was. What if one of them killed him?”
“I suppose we'll have to find out about his personal life, too,” Sally said.
She was getting discouraged already. She wasn't a trained investigator. She didn't know anything about police techniques. Why couldn't Weems just do his job?
Maybe he would, she thought. Maybe she and Jack were overreacting. That was easy for her to think, though. She wasn't the one who'd been accused of murder.
But why did she feel so loyal to Jack? How did she know that he hadn't done the killing himself? Maybe she was guilty of letting her emotions get in the way of her logic. After all, Jack had asked her out, and she had accepted his invitation. She hadn't dated many men since the death of her husband six years earlier, so there was clearly something about Jack that she found attractive. Not in the same way that she found Jorge attractive, she had to admit, but then Jorge hadn't asked her out.
Sally shook her head. She was letting her mind wander, getting off the topic, the same thing she had accused Jack of doing.
“Do we know anyone who could tell us about Bostic?” she asked.
Jack's eyes moved in the same direction that Sally's did, toward Naylor's outer office.
“Wynona,” they both said together.
 
Wynona didn't see them coming because she was concentrating on a crossword puzzle. She put it down hurriedly when Jack tapped on the door frame.
“I was just taking a little break,” she said. “I get a ten-minute break every afternoon. It's part of the job description. You can look it up.”
“Don't mind us,” Sally said. “Enjoy your break. Is the dean in?”
“No,” Wynona said. “He's out.”
Sally knew very well that Naylor was out. Otherwise, Wynona
wouldn't have been working on the puzzle, break or no break, even though it was Friday afternoon and no one else was around. Sally, however, knew better than to say anything like that to Wynona.
“I'm sorry we missed him,” Sally said. “We wanted to talk to him about Ralph Bostic.”
Wynona was instantly alert.
“What about Ralph Bostic?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing much. It wasn't about college business. I was just wondering about Bostic's personal life. You know, because of the murder. But I don't suppose you'd know anything about that.”
She was pretty sure that Wynona did know about Bostic's personal life. He was a member of the board, and Wynona would have made it her business to find out about him. Because Sally didn't have anything to trade this time, she was hoping to appeal to Wynona's vanity.
It worked.
“You'd probably be surprised at some of the things I know,” Wynona said.
“I'm sure I would,” Sally said. “This doesn't really concern the college, though.”
“I've lived in Hughes for more than fort—well, a long time,” Wynona said, catching herself just before she revealed her age. “It's a small town, and you know how people in a small town can talk. They don't spend much of their time talking about the college, believe me. There are a lot of other things going on around here.”
“Such as?”
“Such as Ralph Bostic's love life, for one thing.”
“That sounds interesting,” Sally said, giving Jack a glance to see if he was taking it all in. He gave her a slight nod to let her know he wasn't missing anything. “What about it?”
“I'm sure you know he was having an affair with one of our faculty members.”
Sally tried not to look surprised, but the truth was that she hadn't
either, or he would have told her. Not knowing might not bother him, though, since the affair was certain to have been conducted discreetly off campus. Still, it was something Troy would usually have known about.
Jack wasn't quite as cool as Sally. He said, “Who on earth?”
Wynona waggled a finger at him and smiled redly. Sally wondered where the secretary found lipstick of that peculiarly bright shade.
“That would be telling too much,” Wynona said. “I have to keep some things secret.”
“No you don't,” Jack said.
“You're keeping secrets from me,” Wynona told him. “You haven't mentioned a thing about your trip to the jail this morning.”
Sally nudged Jack with her elbow, and he said, “What would you like to know?”
“All about it,” Wynona said.
Jack gave her the short version and finished by saying, “I have to prove I'm not guilty, and that's why we have to find out about Bostic. Right now I'm the only suspect.”
“I know,” Wynona said. “Dr. Good told me.”
“Then you know why I need all the information I can get,” Jack said. “Now tell us who Bostic's having an affair with.”
Wynona thought about it for a while, and Sally wondered if she should correct Jack's grammar. Probably not. He was upset enough already, and he probably would have phrased things differently, given the time to think about it.
Wynona finally said, “Mae Wilkins.”
“Oh my God,” Sally said before she could catch herself.
Mae was one of the instructors in the English department. She was the Hughes College version of Martha Stewart, always immaculate, every hair in place. Her office was a miracle of order, with all her syllabi neatly squared away in wall shelves, the books arranged in alphabetical order by author or editor, and there were
fresh flowers on Mae's desk every day. She sold Mary Kay cosmetics on the side and apparently did very well at it, as she drove a pink Cadillac.
Wynona leaned back, grinning in satisfaction at the surprise on Sally and Jack's faces.
“I know it's hard to believe,” Wynona said. “Ralph Bostic always looked like he'd been changing spark plugs with his bare hands, and his pants looked like he'd been using them to clean dipsticks. It's hard to imagine what Mae saw in him.”
Sally still couldn't quite believe it.
“Are you sure it's true?” she said.
Wynona looked hurt. She stuck out her lower lip and pretended to pout, a look that didn't really suit her.
“I'm sorry,” Sally said. “I know you wouldn't tell me anything that wasn't true. But May and Ralph Bostic? Opposites attract, I suppose.”
“You got me,” Wynona said. “I like cowboys, myself.”
Sally didn't want to get into what Wynona liked. She was afraid she might find out more than she wanted to know on that topic.
“Is there anything else you can tell us?”
“Well,” Wynona said, “there's the rumor about the hot-car ring.”
This time it was Jack who couldn't help exclaiming.
“Good grief! Was he stealing cars?”
“I wouldn't know about that part of it,” Wynona said. “All I know is that some people think he was mixed up in getting stolen cars across the border to Mexico, where they were sold. I'd have thought you might know about that one, since some people on campus did.”
“Who?” Sally asked.
“President Fieldstone. He was going to use the information to get Bostic off the board.”
Sally didn't have to ask the source of that story. It had to be Naylor.
“And of course Bostic was trying to keep the board from renewing Fieldstone's contract.”
Sally and Jack had run out of things to say. They just looked at one another.
“That's about all, I guess,” Wynona said. “I told you I knew things.”
“You weren't kidding,” Sally said.
BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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