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Authors: Bill Crider

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I
t wasn't as bad as Sally had thought it would be. Weems led them through the events of the afternoon, listening carefully to everything they said and even agreeing that it would be stretching a point to ridiculous lengths to assume that Jack could have had any part in Thomas's death.
“It could even have been an accident,” Weems said. “The back of Thomas's head was crushed. There was blood and brain matter on the floor, but we don't know yet how it happened.”
Jack unconsciously wiped his hand on the leg of his pants. Weems didn't seem to notice.
“Maybe he tripped over his own feet somehow and fell in that grease pit,” Weems continued. “It's a possibility.”
“What about the man in the welder's mask?” Sally asked. “If it was just an accident, what was all that about?”
“How do you know it was a man?” Weems asked.
“We don't,” Jack said. “But he, or she, was big, strong, and kicked like a mule on steroids.”
“There are some big, strong women around,” Weems said. Sally thought about Mae Wilkins, who wasn't big at all, though she might have been strong.
“Whoever it was walked like a man,” she said. “And he had on men's pants and shoes.”
Jack looked at her as if amazed at her powers of observation,
which didn't surprise her. Men got distracted by little things like a welder's mask and didn't notice the important parts of a person's attire.
“Can you describe the shoes and pants?” Weems asked.
“The light wasn't good, but the shoes looked black, and so were the pants. I couldn't really tell much more about them.”
“Have you told President Fieldstone about this?” Jack asked Weems.
Weems looked at him. “Not yet. We haven't been able to locate him.”
Sally saw Jack glance at her out of the corners of his eyes. Everyone knew that Fieldstone made it a point of honor to stay at the college until five o'clock every Friday afternoon. But not today, apparently. Could he have been the man in the mask?
“Getting back to that accident theory,” Sally said. “Why the mask?”
“If some guy just happened to be there when the accident happened,” Weems said, “he might have had a reason for not wanting anybody to see him. Maybe he was afraid he'd be blamed for it.”
“Surely not,” Jack said. “He'd know that the Hughes police would never blame an innocent man for a crime.”
Weems glared at him. “How are those ribs feeling? Still hurting?”
“Only when I laugh,” Jack said. “Or breathe, or move.”
Weems smiled. “I know what you mean. But in two or three months you'll be fine. More or less.”
“Two or three months?”
“Well, you'll still have a little pain now and then, but three months is about right.”
Jack sighed, which seemed to Sally to make Weems feel better.
“Can you think of anyone who might be afraid he'd be blamed for the accident?” Weems asked. “Somebody who might have a lot to lose?”
Sally thought of Jorge Rodriguez immediately, and she could tell that Jack was thinking the same thing. Maybe it was the remark about steroids that Jack had made.
And then she thought of Fieldstone. He would have as much to lose as Jorge if he was caught in a compromising position.
“I can't think of anybody,” Jack said, with a glib nonchalance that Sally admired.
“Me neither,” she said, though she wasn't sure she'd managed to be nearly as nonchalant as Jack.
“Okay, then,” Weems said, seeming to accept their answers, “tell me this: Did Thomas know Ralph Bostic?”
“They were acquainted,” Sally said. “Bostic wanted to eliminate all the college programs that weren't making money, and auto mechanics hasn't had great enrollments lately.”
Weems looked at her thoughtfully. “So I guess if Bostic wanted to eliminate programs, he had plenty of enemies.”
“More than one, anyway,” Jack said. “You should've thought about that before you ran me in.”
“I didn't run you in,” Weems told him. “If I'd run you in, you'd still be in, believe me, probably becoming real good friends with some very strange people in the holding cell.” Weems smiled, probably thinking of Jack in the holding cell, and then changed the subject. “What other programs did Bostic have it in for?”
Jack didn't say anything, and Weems looked at Sally, who looked at a photo of Eric Desmond receiving some kind of award from President Fieldstone. Maybe he'd been employee of the quarter or something like that. Sally couldn't recall.
“I can't hear you,” Weems said.
“Only because we can't think of anything,” Sally told him. “Auto mechanics was one program that Bostic had it in for, and I'm sure there were others. But English wasn't one of them, and as long as my department isn't threatened, I don't worry about it.”
Sally really didn't feel that way at all, but she thought Weems would believe her. And maybe it would keep him from asking her anything else on the topic.
“Looking out for number one,” Weems said.
“That's right,” Jack said, following Sally's lead. “That's what the
academic world is all about. Think about yourself and watch your back.”
“Poor choice of words for an English teacher,” Weems said. “The part about watching your back, I mean.”
“I didn't mean it like that,” Jack said. “Like Bostic. It's just that there are plenty of people who'll stick a figurative knife in your back around here if you're not careful. But not a real one. People in this profession don't much go for real knives.”
Weems crossed his arms and smiled. “Another poor choice of words, I'd say, considering the knife that killed Bostic just happens to be yours.”
Jack looked flustered. Sally felt a little sorry for him, but there was nothing she could do. He'd created his problem, and he'd have to solve it.
“You know what I mean,” Jack said, which wasn't the most forceful of arguments.
Weems, however, surprised Sally by saying, “Yeah, I think I do. And I think you're not telling me all you know. But that's all right. I'll find out. And you can be sure I'll be keeping an eye on you while I do it. You're not out of the woods yet. You might not have killed Thomas, but that doesn't mean you aren't good for the Bostic deal. There's no way of getting around whose knife that was.”
“You don't believe Jack killed anyone,” Sally said. “You know that these two deaths have to be related somehow.”
“You never know,” Weems said.
“It would be too much of a coincidence if they weren't,” Jack said. “We're not living in the murder capital of the world here.”
“You should never underrate coincidence,” Weems said. “I've seen a few that Charles Dickens would have been embarrassed to use.
“You know Dickens?” Jack said.
“That's right.
Beowulf
isn't the only thing I like to read.”
“You read
Beowulf
?” Sally said.
“You think all I do is catch crooks?”
“No,” Sally said. “I don't know why I should be surprised.”
“Stereotyping,” Weems said. “But I'm used to it.”
“Stereotypes or not, I didn't kill Bostic,” Jack said. “No matter how many coincidences you've seen or how many books you've read.”
“I guess we'll find out about that, won't we,” Weems said. He started out of the room, then turned around and came back in. “By the way, there's one other thing I meant to ask you.”
Sally wondered if he'd been watching
Columbo
reruns. In between reading Dickens and
Beowulf,
of course.
“What's the other thing?” she asked.
“The lights in that auto shop. We couldn't get them turned on.”
“Neither could we,” Sally said.
“We finally had to get one of the maintenance crew to show us where the breaker box was,” Weems said. “Somebody had tripped the switch.”
“It wasn't us,” Jack said.
“Assuming that you're telling the truth,” Weems said, “and assuming that there really was someone else in there, whoever it was also knew where that breaker was.”
“So?”
“So he was familiar with the building,” Weems said. “Not just some guy who walked in off the street. You say you didn't know where the box was?”
Jack and Sally both nodded.
“Then he was even more familiar with the building than you are,” Weems said. “That's something you might want to think about. I'll be seeing you around. Especially you, Neville. You might want to think some more about how your knife got from your desk to Bostic's back if you didn't put it there.”
Weems gave a little wave. This time he went through the door and didn't come back.
J
ack went home to take a nap and recuperate. Sally went back to her office because she needed a Hershey bar in the worst way. In fact, she couldn't think of a time when she'd been more in need of some chocolate comfort.
But she wasn't going to get it. When she reached her office, she was shocked to find two people waiting for her: Troy Beauchamp and Ellen Baldree. It was after five o'clock on a Friday afternoon. The campus should have been deserted. She didn't remember ever having seen anyone on campus at that time of day on a Friday. Of course, she usually wasn't there herself.
After about a second's consideration, however, Sally knew she shouldn't be surprised at Troy's appearance in her office. There wasn't much doubt that he was there to find out what he could about what had been happening. But Ellen was another matter.
“I was at the Seahorse Club, getting an early start on the weekend,” Troy said. “I was just leaving when I saw the police cars heading out here to the campus. I thought I'd come by and find out what was happening, and someone told me that you were involved. Naturally I had to find out how you were doing, so I just waited for you in case you came back by your office.”
“I appreciate your concern,” Sally said, knowing full well that Troy was much more interested in getting the lowdown on what had happened than he was in how Sally was doing. “And you, Ellen?”
Ellen Baldree was perpetually unhappy with Sally for reasons that Sally had never quite been able to determine. She thought that probably Ellen would have disliked anyone in the chair's position, maybe because she wanted the job herself (though in Sally's opinion she was temperamentally unsuited for it) or maybe because she just didn't like to think that anyone was in charge of her. In her less agreeable moments, of which there were many, Ellen liked to remind Sally that she had outlasted three previous department chairs, the clear implication being that long after Sally was canned, Ellen would still be there at HCC, harassing the new chair and reminding her (or him) about the four that had come and gone while Ellen had persevered.
“It's a private matter,” Ellen said, with a look at Troy, a look clearly designed to make Troy aware of how well she knew Troy would blab anything he heard to the first person he saw. “I've been waiting for quite a while, hoping you'd come back by, but I'd prefer to discuss it with you after Mr. Beauchamp is through.”
“That's fine,” Sally said. “You can wait in the hall. And close the door, please.”
Ellen was clearly put out by having to wait, but she closed the door without slamming it.
“They didn't arrest Jack again, did they?” Troy asked when Ellen was safely out of sight.
“No,” Sally said, and she told him as much as she thought he ought to know about what had happened.
“Good grief,” Troy said when she was finished. “That must have been awful! And the police have no idea who's going around killing people?”
“None at all, if you don't count Jack.”
“Surely they don't think he killed Ray Thomas, too.”
“I don't believe they do, but it's hard to tell with Detective Weems.”
“This is going to be hard on Mae,” Troy said.
“Why on earth?”
“She and Ray were having a little fling. I thought everybody knew that.”
“Not everybody,” Sally said, wondering if Weems knew. And wondering if Troy, not to mention Weems, knew about Mae and Bostic.
“It's been going on for a while,” Troy said. “I have no idea what she saw in him. He's as different from her as daylight is from dark.”
Sally was about to say “opposites attract,” but she stopped herself just in time. One use of that cliche a day was more than enough.
“Maybe she was getting free auto repair,” she said.
“Maybe. But I still don't get it. He was in that shop all day, and when he left, he was so covered with oil and grease that he looked as if he'd been working on a drilling rig all day.”
“I'm sure she made him clean up,” Sally said.
Troy stood up. Sally could tell he was eager to get out and start spreading the news.
“We'll probably never know,” he said. “I'm just glad you're all right, and I hope you won't let this upset you too much.”
“Don't worry about me,” Sally said. “I'm fine.”
That wasn't strictly true. She didn't feel fine at all, mainly because there was something about the man in the welding mask that she'd told neither Jack nor Weems. But she couldn't let herself fret about that. She had Ellen Baldree to worry about first.
She thought about getting a Hershey bar from the bottom drawer of her desk, but she didn't want Ellen to see her eating it. Ellen would probably think it was a sign of weakness, and it might very well be. So Sally wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.
Ellen came into the office as soon as Troy slipped out the door. She'd obviously been lurking close by, perhaps in an attempt to overhear whatever was being said. She sat down by Sally's desk, crossed her legs, and said, “I want to know what you're going to do about Jack Neville.”
Sally looked at Ellen. Her most striking feature was her hair, which was extremely black, as black as any hair that Sally had ever
seen—which was surprising, given Ellen's age. She had to be at least fifty-five, and Sally refused to believe that anyone's hair could stay that black at that age, at least not without the help of chemicals.
But maybe she was being uncharitable, Sally thought. After all, her own hair was a constant trial to her. It reminded her of Shakespeare's sonnet, the one that went, “If hairs be wires, black wires grow upon her head.” Not that the wires on her head were entirely black.
“Well?” Ellen said.
“I'm not sure what you mean,” Sally said.
“Of course you don't. You don't know that Neville's your pet. You don't know that you have a date with him this weekend. You don't know, but everyone else at HCC does.”
“And your point is?”
Ellen uncrossed her legs, sat up straight, and crossed her arms.
“My point is that you're the department chair. You aren't supposed to show favoritism. I'll be keeping an eye on the schedule for next semester, and if Neville gets an extra sophomore class or if he doesn't have to teach at eight o'clock, I'll complain to the dean.”
“I make the schedule as fair as possible to everyone,” Sally said.
“I'll bet. That's why Jason Kent's classes always fill up before anyone else's. We all know he's got the best schedule. Or he did. Now you'll probably fix things for your boyfriend.”
Sally thought longingly of the Hershey bar lying quietly in the drawer not two feet from her. She thought of almonds and chocolate.
She also thought that Jason Kent's classes filled up because he was an excellent teacher who had remarkable rapport with his students. In her six years at HCC Sally had never had a complaint about any of his classes, unless you counted the woman who was convinced she should have made an A on the paper she'd cribbed from an article she'd located on the Internet. She'd explained to Sally that Mr. Kent simply didn't like her; otherwise he would have given her an A. After all, if the paper was good enough to be posted
on the Internet, it was certainly good enough for an A at HCC. The fact that it was plagiarized in its entirety shouldn't enter into the discussion.
Sally didn't mention any of that to Ellen. She simply pointed out that Kent didn't always have a favorable schedule. Some of his classes were scheduled in the afternoons, and they always filled.
“No wonder they're filled,” Ellen said. “There are hardly any other classes offered then.”
“So what does that tell us?” Sally asked, expecting Ellen to say that nobody else would teach at those times because no one would sign up for their classes.
But Ellen fooled her. She said, “It tells us that he doesn't like competition. If there were any other classes, his wouldn't fill up.”
“I don't think that's true at all,” Sally said. “And by the way, Jack Neville is not my boyfriend.”
“That's what I'd say, too, if I were going out with an accused killer. You'd better not let him back in the classroom. There are plenty of people who would take exception to being on the same faculty with him.”
Sally counted silently to ten. Then she counted to ten again for good measure.
“For your information,” she said when she was through with the counting, “the dean has already asked to teach Jack's classes for a while.”
“I'm glad someone around here has a little sense,” Ellen said.
“For your further information, I didn't agree with the dean's decision. I happen to believe that Jack is innocent. And even if he weren't, we should presume his innocence until he's been found guilty in court.”
“They don't take innocent people in for questioning,” Ellen said.
“I'm sure the people who wrote the constitution would disagree.”
“They'd be wrong, then,” Ellen said.
Sally had to admire Ellen for one reason if for no other. When she had an opinion, she stuck to it in the face of any and all opposition.
Facts and reason meant nothing to her. She ignored them as blithely as if they didn't exist.
“Is that all you wanted to tell me?” Sally asked.
“Yes. And remember: I'll be having a very close look at the schedule when it comes out.”
“I think that's an excellent idea,” Sally told her. “Sometimes mistakes creep in, no matter how hard I work on it, so I'll tell Dean Naylor that you'll be double-checking everything.”
“I didn't say that.”
“And I know he'll appreciate your help,” Sally said. “You know how he hates having errors in the schedule.” Sally stood up. “I have to be leaving now.”
Ellen stood as well, a look of surprise and shock replacing the determined glare she'd worn ever since sitting down.
“I didn't say I'd check the schedule for Dean Naylor! I didn't say anything about finding errors.”
“He's always asking for more faculty input,” Sally said. “He'll be thrilled to know that you'll be giving it to him.”
“But I don't want to read the entire schedule!”
Sally put one gentle hand on Ellen's elbow and picked up her purse with the other. She guided Ellen toward the door and out into the hall.
“I'm sure Dean Naylor will be in touch,” she said, pulling the door of the office closed behind her.
“But I don't want him to be in touch,” Ellen said.
“Then you'd better tell him that you can't work on the schedule after all,” Sally said, walking past her. “But he'll be disappointed if you don't. I'll see you on Monday.”
“I don't know anything about checking the schedule,” Ellen wailed behind her.
“That's all right,” Sally said. “I'm sure you'll learn soon enough. Dean Naylor is a very good teacher. He's the one who taught me about making schedules. Of course you might want to give him some ideas for improvement.”
Sally decided to leave it at that and walked away. She turned the corner into the main hallway and headed for the door. She could hear Ellen saying something, but it was muffled by the walls, and Sally didn't want to hear it anyway.
BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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