Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
“You must be mistaken.”
“I assure you, I’m not. The boy has a broken nose. Witnesses corroborated your brother’s violent outburst.”
“I know Matt’s been tardy and missed turning in some assignments, but he’s never been in trouble. How could this happen?”
“I warned you earlier this year if he continued fraternizing with his old friends it would lead to trouble.”
The short conversation in October flashed through my mind.
“We have very high standards at Winton Hall and cannot tolerate his behavior, no matter how much you’ve pledged to this institution.”
“Don’t worry, this won’t happen again.” I chewed my broken pinky nail.
“You’re right about that. Matt’s on suspension until the police can sort this out.”
Police? All my hopes for my brother crumbled like a sand castle against the incoming tide.
“You’ll have to retrieve Matt right away and discuss the incident with the officer taking the report. We’ve never had to summon the police to campus in the history of this institution.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I ended the call, my mind reeling. I hoped moving Matt to a private school would improve his education and social standing, and help him forget his old friends. This was so unlike him; to use violence to solve his problems. My stomach tightened. Just like our father.
I shoved the letters in my bag and headed to Henderson’s office.
Candy stopped me at Jack’s door. “Mari, this came from the lab for Professor Henderson.” She handed me a manila envelope and wiped her nose. “I guess it’s for you since you have seniority. Must be important. Henderson was at his wits’ end searching for this report yesterday. Went through Peter’s office thinking it was delivered to him by mistake.”
“I’ll hold onto it until we find a department head.”
“I assumed you’d be applying for the position.”
“It never crossed my mind.” I’d been trying to cut my ties from the university since Jack and I finalized the divorce. “Besides, Peter’s better qualified. Hasn’t he said he could do a better job of running the department than Professor Henderson?”
“Maybe you should give it some thought. I’m not too keen on Peter Kipling. He’s not all that personable. He walks around here like he needs an enema.”
I stifled a laugh. “Peter’s had a rough couple of years.”
“More like a decade.”
“Maybe you’re right, but he hasn’t always been so uptight. You’ve got to remember how it was in the beginning, when he returned after years in the field and settled in the States with his wife and kids. Henderson, Jack, and Peter ran around this place like a bunch of Boy Scouts.”
“That was a long time ago, Mari. People change. Almost everyone has changed over the years except you and Jack … and Professor Henderson. I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s something about Peter that doesn’t sit well in my craw. Don’t make a rash decision. Sleep on it and let me know.” She patted my hand.
I didn’t need to sleep on it. I had my aspirations set on something bigger. “Sure, I’ll give it some thought. Can you set it on my desk? I’ve got to get Matt from school.” I handed it to her.
“Let’s say I’d like to slap him so hard his clothes will be outta style when he stops rollin’.” I tipped the corners of my mouth so she’d think I was joking.
“Oh my stars. You better git then.”
“First I need to tell Fletcher where I’m going.”
She raised one eyebrow, shooting me the look Nonna used to give me when she caught me stealing her fried meatballs before Sunday dinner.
“Candy, he’s harmless. Really. I can handle him.”
Poised with her hand on her hip, Candy shook her head. “Just because a dog got no teeth doesn’t mean it won’t bite. You be careful, you hear?”
When I entered Henderson’s office, Fletcher sat at the desk rummaging through some papers. He flashed me his canines.
“What’d you find? Blackmail photos?” I clutched my red tote.
“Don’t I wish. Just some copies of Henderson’s tenure papers. Too bad he left us so soon. It appears he had a cushy job planned for his golden years. Though according to this—” Fletcher waved a piece of paper. “Holding onto it might’ve been tough.”
I walked to the desk. Fletcher slid the papers to me. “Seems like Kipling had more than one problem with the old goat.”
I scanned the letter from Peter to the review board. How could the detectives have missed this? Circus music flitted through my mind. “Peter was trying to have Henderson’s tenure revoked? I thought it was talk. Like the rumors about Henderson breaking up Peter’s marriage.”
“Those aren’t rumors.”
I studied Fletcher’s face. He was serious. “I thought Henderson dated Susan after her marriage to Peter broke up. Peter told me they separated because of financial difficulties straining their marriage.”
the reason Peter and Susan separated.”
A sharp breath whisked through my open mouth. Why hadn’t I seen it before? The obsessive rivalry. Peter’s jealousy over Henderson’s academic successes. At times it seemed Peter went out of his way to pick a fight. I gulped in a breath, recalling my premonition and the argument outside my dressing room. Someone did get hurt. “Why’d Peter lie?”
“If I got dumped by my old lady for my boss ten years older than me who I despised, I wouldn’t be advertising it. The man’s ego must have looked like Swiss cheese.”
“I can’t believe Susan had an affair with Henderson. I admired her for staying home to raise her kids and for giving up her nursing career. Why would she destroy her family?”
“Maybe she got tired of playing house and wanted someone else to make her bed.”
“How selfish to put her desires above … what kind of woman would do that?” Or man?
“Someone who’s human.”
“I’d never destroy my family like that.” Jack had that covered.
“Listen, Saint Mari, none of us are perfect. Not even you. Who knows what went on between Kipling and Susan. Maybe Kipling had a heavy hand. It’s not your place to judge.”
“It’s still hard to believe Susan … of all people.” With her cheerful spirit and cute brunette bob, she reminded me of a modern-day Mary Tyler Moore in her Laura Petrie days. Devoted to family and husband. Though even I had to admit Peter Kipling was no Dick Van Dyke.
“What’s done is done. They’re not together, so forget it.” He leaned back in Henderson’s chair and propped his feet on the desk. Dirt sloughed off his boots.
“You better clean that up.”
He saluted me and brushed the dirt from the desk. “Let’s focus on more interesting matters.” Fletcher pointed to the tenure letters in my hand.
“I’d love to stay and chat, really, but I’ve got my own problems to deal with.” I set the papers down.
“Jack’s check bounce?”
“No. It’s my brother, Matt. And I’m running late.”
“One little peek? I promise it’ll be worth it.”
“Fine.” I shuffled through the papers, stopping at the document detailing a dozen accusations of Henderson’s sexual misconduct with students over the last five years. “Do you believe all this?”
“Actually, no. I knew several of those girls when they were freshmen. There’s no way they’d go for Henderson over me.”
I smacked him across the head with the stack of papers. “Maybe someone should’ve filed a sexual harassment suit against you?”
“Touché. But I would never pursue a relationship with a student, just a co-worker.” He raised his eyebrows twice, and I wished I had a syringe full of Botox to paralyze his facial muscles.
I threw the papers on the desk. “Sorry, I don’t have time for this, as amusing as it is.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to go. If you really meant what you said about helping, can you finish cleaning without me?”
Fletcher sat up, a protest forming on his lips.
“You owe me.”
“I’m really sorry about that.”
The guy looked like a lost cub. “Turns out I might not have blown my chance at KTXL.”
Fire returned to his countenance. “Great. You’ll have to fill me in.”
“Can’t. I’m in a hurry.” I walked toward the door.
“How about at dinner tonight?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“I promised I’d be home for dinner. The last time I ate a hot meal with the kids was almost a week ago. Besides, we’re having lasagna.”
“Did you make it?”
“Then lasagna it is.”
I checked my watch and groaned. “Fine. 7:00 sharp.”
“I’ll bring the wine.”
“No wine.” I cringed as my mind shot to the last time Fletcher and I shared a toast too many.
“Then I’ll have to intoxicate you with dazzling conversation.”
Maybe I’d better take my chances with the wine.
Lyndon University Parking Lot
THE DECEMBER SUN SHONE overhead as I maneuvered past rushing college students and headed toward the faculty parking lot. With each step, my temperature rose, and it wasn’t because the thermometer read seventy-two, several degrees above normal for this time of year.
What could I say to Matt’s vice principal and the boy’s parents to assure them my brother had a momentary lapse of sanity, that deep down he wasn’t a juvenile delinquent, that he deserved a second chance?
I bit my lip. No denying it. He was his father’s son.
Between hungry college students and those late for finals, LU’s parking lot buzzed with vehicles coming and going, dodging wayward pedestrians who darted out between parked cars. I covered my ears as a souped-up engine revved, then I checked both ways before stepping into vehicular chaos. I spied my BMW on the other end of the parking lot.
“Mari, wait.” Elizabeth jogged toward me, almost getting clipped by a yellow pickup.
“Are you taking a break? You usually don’t get off until 3:30 on Mondays.”
“No, I’m finished for the day. They cancelled all the shows.”
“Really? Because of Henderson?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I guess. You’re going to pick up the boys today after school, right? I can get the girls later after the Christmas pageant practice.”
“I completely forgot. I have an appointment at 3:00 with KTXL. They missed the show this morning and asked me to bring a tape.”
“See, I knew everything would work out. But who’s going to get Ben and Luke?”
“Can’t you do it? You’re off now.”
“I wish I could, but I’ve got something I can’t get out of.”
“I can get Danny to pick them up. It’s one of the perks to having a student as a tenant.”
“Why can’t Matt do it?”
“He’s been suspended.” I dug in my bag for my keys.
I extended my right arm across Elizabeth, protecting her from a speeding car. “I’m off to get him now.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened, but I knew she wouldn’t inquire.
I raised my right hand, keys dangling. “I promise to find out the details and let you know as soon as possible so you can do that interceding thing you do.”
She shrugged. “I guess I can pick up the boys. I’ll reschedule.”
“Don’t worry. Danny’ll get them. You keep your appointment. You deserve a little pampering.”
Elizabeth hesitated. “I don’t feel comfortable with Luke riding with Danny.”
“Come on, Elizabeth! What do you have against him? Just because he was raised in foster care doesn’t make him a pedophile. I trust him enough to let him rent the room above our garage. He’s a good kid. Ben loves him like a brother.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together. “Okay. I’ll plead the blood of Jesus over them.”
Not a pleasant visual. “Please, enough gore for today. My stomach is still spinning from the thought of Henderson being murdered.”
“That explains the police around the set. I thought he had a heart attack.”
“Me too, but the detective thinks otherwise.” I jolted at the “King Tut” ringtone. Two calls in one day? Something had to be wrong. “I need to take this.”
“Mari, don’t let Jack suck you back in.”
“Don’t worry, I’m so over him.”
“Call me later.” Elizabeth jogged to her car.
I nodded and answered my iPhone. “Jack.” I tried to mask the anxiety in my voice. The line crackled, then an explosion muffled Jack’s words.
Numbing tingles shot through my chest.
“Jack? Are you okay?”
No answer. A second blast ripped through my ears. I panted for air, my world closing in as the line went dead.
Lyndon University Parking Lot
WITH TREMBLING HANDS, I opened the door to my BMW and slid in the driver’s seat.
Stop overreacting. Jack is fine.
He’s always fine.
I trudged through the muddy waters of my mind for a logical explanation to what I’d just heard. Frazzled nerves and near starvation could bring on hallucinations, couldn’t they? Besides, satellite reception was unstable in Egypt and archaeologists never used dynamite. Why did he call?
I started the car and set my phone in the docking cradle, my pulse settling right above resting. Thoughts of my prodigal teenage brother smothered my irrational fear. Jack was fine. He had to be. Matt, on the other hand, was where I needed to focus my worry.
Nausea replaced hunger as I exited the parking lot and passed fast food row. The smoldering volcano within started to bubble. How could Matt do this? Not only would his reputation be tarnished, but his recklessness reflected on the entire family.
Ten minutes later I drove into the Winton Hall Preparatory School parking lot, signed in as a visitor, and slipped down the hall to the office hoping no one knew the reason for my visit. I knocked on the door and held my breath.
“Come in.” The older woman behind the desk eyed me with her penciled eyebrows raised. “Mrs. Duggins?”
“They’re waiting for you.” I could sense her shaking her head and “tsk-tsking” me as I walked away. When I entered the room, three pairs of eyes assaulted me.
Mr. Fielding hunched over his massive desk. His audible sigh splattered me with judgment. “Mrs. Duggins, please have a seat.” He pointed to the armchair next to an elegant woman with expensive highlights who stared straight ahead at Mr. Fielding. She sat noble and erect, poised like a model spokesperson for good posture in her pink polo shirt and tennis skirt, which accentuated her personal-trainer-sculpted thighs.