Death in an Ivory Tower (Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries) (4 page)

BOOK: Death in an Ivory Tower (Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries)
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I stopped at the door of room four on my way down and listened but didn’t knock because it was only a bit past six. Silence. Down two flights. Silence again at door two and at door three, Mignon’s room.

Outside, the morning air felt brisk. The perfect carpet of grass in the quad glistened with dew. I checked the walkway beneath the bathroom window, but found nothing that might have caused that small metallic noise I’d heard last night.

I waved to the porter on duty behind the glass wall of his office as I tapped the electronic pad by the main entrance with my magic button. Shift change for the porters was at seven a.m., I knew, so this man had been on duty since eleven o’clock last night and his replacement would arrive shortly.

The smell of frying sausage, probably from one of the stalls in the Covered Market, floated on the morning air. A short walk took me to the High Street where I decided to head east. It felt like west, but I had studied my map and knew it was east, a fact bolstered by the rising sun in my eyes. Having been born and raised in rural western Virginia, I tend to navigate more by compass directions than by the “two blocks down, left at the corner of Thirty-three and Oak” sort of directions you get from city folk. When I’m turned around, as I was in Oxford, my internal gyroscope feels wobbly. Everyone has a body clock, but we country folk also have a body compass. It was rather like having jet lag squared after flying across six time zones and landing in a town that seemed to me to have been built in reverse.

A red and yellow sightseeing bus barreled past, farting diesel fumes, on what still seemed to me like the wrong side of the street. Cyclists were already filling up the bike lanes. I turned left on Catte Street, passed the Radcliffe Camera, and paused before stepping out into Broad Street. In front of the Sheldonian Theatre, the university’s ceremonial center, stood a semicircle of thirteen soot-streaked, morose-looking busts, each atop its own column. Locals called them the “Emperors’ Heads” but no one knew who or what they were supposed to represent. Almost certainly not emperors.

A man I knew poked about at the base of one of these columns and kicked at a pile of blown leaves. At first I didn’t recognize him because I’d never seen him dressed in anything but a long black jacket and stovepipe hat. His name was John Fish. John led the “Haunted Oxford” tour each evening, squiring groups around town on ninety-minute walks designed to scare the pants off those who wanted to be scared, but still offering a pleasant and informative walk to those who, like myself, don’t believe in ghosts.

“John.” I greeted him and gave him a minute to recall who I was—the woman who’d talked to him a couple of times while he waited at his assigned spot for his next group to assemble. I knew he wouldn’t remember my name. “Dotsy Lamb. From the United States.”

“Right-o.” Today he wore a light blue T-shirt that said “BU,” jeans, and flip-flops. He looked as if he’d had a hard night. Unshaven, hair greasy, and eyes bloodshot. John Fish, I decided, looked better after dark. His teeth were in terrible condition. I suspected he might have a drug problem. He had the prematurely aged, sallow skin that often marks the face of the addict. His hands looked thirty but his face looked sixty.

“A woman in my group last night lost her keys,” he said. “Thought I’d sort of retrace the route this morning and see if I could find them. No luck last night in the dark, were it?”

“You’re just the man I need to talk to.” I followed him to the next column, where he poked about, shifting the debris collected at its base with his skull-topped ebony cane. “We had a ghost at St. Ormond’s last night.”

“Didja now?” He kept poking.

I expected a bigger reaction, given that ghosts were John’s livelihood. Maybe he didn’t believe in ghosts himself. Maybe his entertaining spiel was just that. A spiel.

“The Grey Lady, we called her. Know anything about a Grey Lady ghost in Oxford?”

He snorted. “A Grey Lady? There’s grey ladies everywhere. There’s a Grey Lady at Glamis Castle, a Grey Lady at Denbigh Castle, grey ladies all over Bishop’s Stortford, at Rutherford Hall, in Harry Potter, in France,” he paused for breath. “There’s a Grey Lady in Evansville, Indiana. You know Indiana?”

I laughed. “I had no idea.”

“I think it’s because, if it’s a ghost it tends to be grey. They’re not normally solid enough to be in full color, innit?” He leaned toward me, so close I smelled his morning breath, his hands shaping an imaginary ghost. “If they’re all white, or all black, how you gonna see ’em, eh? That’s why they’re grey. So you can see ’em . . . but not too much.”

I loved his reasoning. I told him about our shared experience at the cocktail party the previous evening in the Master’s Lodgings.

John nodded vigorously as I described the wide range of impressions it had left on various attendees. “Everyone tryin’ to sort it out, eh? Lady Macbeth? Who said that about Prudence Burcote?”

“I think it was the man from the Bodleian Library. Man named Morris, I believe.”

“Makes sense it was a local man. I always talk about Prudence Burcote when I take ’em down to Magpie Lane.”

“So what do you think? What was it?”

“A ghost, innit?”

“Oh, come on.”

“Why ask me? I wasn’t there. Did everyone see it?” John had inexplicably reverted to the cultured British he used for guiding tours.

“Not everyone. Only those who happened to be looking toward the door to the hallway.”

“And it was the talk of the dinner table, eh?”

John Fish was obviously delighted we’d seen a ghost. Such things were good for his business. I don’t know why I’d even asked him about it. Did I expect him to produce a natural explanation? If he had one, it wouldn’t have been in his best interest to tell me.

I found a clean spot on the concrete steps between two of the columns and sat. John sat beside me, tucking his cane between his knees. We faced Broad Street, so named because it’s broader than the other streets. Across Broad was Blackwell’s Bookshop, where I’d spent many hours and quite a few British pounds over the past five days.

“Daphne Wetmore, the Master’s wife. Do you know her?” I asked.

John nodded.

“Daphne followed the . . . the whatever it was, out into the hall but she said it simply wasn’t there anymore.”

“Her husband’s a right bloody-minded prat.”

“What do you mean?”

“Tries to get me shut down, don’t he? Any way he can. And naturally he knows people on city council, from the mayor on down. Stood up in front of city council, didn’t he?” John raised his skull-topped cane and bellowed, “‘Our town is known the world over for academic rigor! For its commitment to
truth
! And yet we allow these fantasy-mongers to ply our streets and fill our visitors’ heads with their ghosts and goblins and glowing blobs.’”

I looked all around, concerned that John’s outburst would bring on a chorus of complaints, but it seemed we were alone and the emperors with their droopy beards looked as if they couldn’t care less. “He really did that?”

“He did, but so far, touch wood, nothing’s come of it.” He looked around for something made of wood, spotted his ebony cane, and tapped it.

“What about his wife? Was she there?”

“Daphne? Oh, sure. Sitting there on the front row, she was.”

“Do you think she was on his side?”

“Daphne’s a good woman. Do anything to help you, won’t she? But she won’t go against her husband. She’ll back Harold one hundred percent, and don’t expect her to do aught else.”

“You know them pretty well then?”

“This is my fifth year doing the ghost tours. Harold Wetmore’s been master of St. Ormond’s longer than that. Our paths have crossed. Many times.” Under his breath he muttered, “Little troll.”

I had a feeling Harold and John may have crossed swords as well.

C
HAPTER
T
HREE

Breakfast at St. Ormond’s was always buffet-style, with all the elements of a Full English arrayed along the back wall in the dining hall. They also stocked yogurts, Weetabix, and fruits for the health-conscious. My head makes me stick to this end of the line but my heart wants to wallow in the poached eggs, blood sausage, toast and jam.

Larry Roberts waved me over with a vigor I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see. He rose and pulled out a chair for me, spilling a bit of orange juice on his trousers in the process. “Damn!”

I handed him a napkin.

He brushed frantically at the spot, wrapped the napkin around his finger, and dipped it into his water glass. This action sent the water glass tumbling onto his toast plate. Larry’s face flushed. He was so nervous I figured he’d be better off taking his breakfast intravenously. His hands shook as he daubed at the toast plate. I took the plate and the napkin away from him and pushed his water-splashed chair aside.

“Get yourself another chair, Larry.” I turned and signaled a server for help. Larry was so keyed up, I didn’t think he could handle a sippy cup right now. I asked the server to bring him some dry toast.

Larry, although flushed and with a yellowish wet spot in an embarrassing place, was a distinguished-looking man. I’ve often told him he could be a model for Perry Ellis. He always acts insulted and mutters something profane under his breath, but he likes it.

“Where were you last night?” he asked. “I looked for you after dinner. I needed you to listen to my address one more time. I’ve made a couple of changes.”

“I went to bed early.”

“I know you’re sick of hearing my paper, but I want it to be right.”

“I know. It will be. Don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say.” He let the server place a dry plate with dry toast and a foil-wrapped pat of butter in front of him. “What am I going to do about these pants? I don’t have another pair that go with this jacket and tie.”

“Don’t worry about it. That spot will be dry before your speech.”

“Think so?”

“If not, you’ll be behind a lectern so it won’t matter.”

With great difficulty, Larry managed to unwrap the butter and spread a bit of it on his toast.

I looked around the room and spotted two of my dinner companions from the night before, but where was Keith Bunsen? I’d sat with him at breakfast every morning so far, but he wasn’t here now. Bram Fitzwaring and Mignon Beaulieu weren’t here either. I kept watching the doors whenever someone new entered. I wanted, keenly, to ask them both about last night’s noises on Staircase Thirteen.

On the way back to my room to brush my teeth before the day’s scheduled activities began, I ran into Georgina. I couldn’t recall her last name. She’d been one of our servers at the cocktail party last night and, I knew, she was Harold Wetmore’s niece. She was carrying the white cotton coif she’d worn on her head at the party and her blond hair was pulled back into a shaggy ponytail. She was still wearing the blue cotton shift. Her white apron hung over one arm. She nodded at me and, head lowered, hurried past.

I knocked on Mignon’s and Bram’s doors again, and again got no answer.

I sweated through Larry’s speech like a new mother at a kindergarten play. Silly, of course, because this was a grown man with a PhD in medieval European history and I certainly didn’t love him like a child. But the majority of sentences he delivered from the stage in the Smythson Lecture Hall were sentences I had tweaked myself. I had a stake in his success.

His topic was
Le Morte d’Arthur,
a compilation of tales about King Arthur, written by Thomas Malory in the fifteenth century and written in Middle English. Larry was conversant in both Middle French and Middle English, as those dialects were spoken back then. When he referenced Chaucer’s
Wife of Bath’s Tale,
written about the same time, I knew he would launch into a bombastic rendition of the Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales.
In Middle English.
Wan that Aprille with his sures sothe . . .
I knew it by heart myself, now. I’d tried to talk him out of it because I felt it wandered too far from the topic, but he’d been adamant.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the audience’s laughter. Not really guffaws; these were scholars after all, but it started with grins, then chuffs disguised as small coughs, then notepads lifted to mouths. Eyes darting toward seat companions. Elbows nudging. And then, from the balcony, an outright hoot.

Why were they laughing?

A whisper from behind clued me in. I heard someone say, “Wan that Aprille, y’all.” This audience was familiar with the sounds of Middle English, but it was the first time they’d heard them delivered with a southern (American) accent.

Now I really felt like a kindergarten mother. I wanted to rush onstage, bundle Larry Roberts in my arms, and lead him away to some nice milk and cookies or a strong bourbon and soda.

Servers, all in green polo shirts with St. Ormond’s coat of arms on the breast pockets, waited for us outside at linen-covered tables. I skipped the line at the teapot table and dashed off in search of Larry. I wasn’t sure he’d caught the reaction to his Prologue recitation. From the stage, the footlights may have obscured individual faces. Plus, Larry wasn’t the most perceptive man in the world when it came to reading faces, and the audience had rewarded him with polite applause at the end. I looked through all three quads but didn’t find him.

On my way across West Quad I spotted Mignon Beaulieu heading for the main gate. Calling to her, I scurried to catch up and apologized for waking her up last night.

“You did? I have no memory of that.”

“Good. I could tell you had obviously been asleep.”

“I’m a sound sleeper. I’m surprised I heard your knock.”

“I’m afraid I pounded on the door,” I said, donning my humblest face. “But I was hearing horrible loud noises, and I thought they were coming from down below. My room’s on the top floor and I didn’t know which room was yours and which was Bram’s so I knocked on all the doors.”

“What time was this?”

“It must have been about two a.m.”

“I didn’t hear a thing. I was up until after midnight. I must have eaten something bad, because I got deathly ill. I threw up, in fact. Then I went to sleep and I don’t think I woke up again until an hour ago.”

BOOK: Death in an Ivory Tower (Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries)
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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