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Authors: Jane Haddam

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BOOK: Quoth the Raven
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“Meaning you don’t have any secrets,” Ken said.

“Exactly. Everything we do have is right out there in the files for anyone to see, in the original or on microfiche, depending on the state of the documents. We’ve always encouraged professors from the college to do their research with us. We’ve always encouraged scholarly interest in the history of the valley.”

“You certainly encouraged mine.”

Mrs. Winston Barradyne waved this away. “You’re local. I remember how dedicated your mother was to the Historical Society. It’s in your genes. But this man—”

“Dr. Donegal Steele,” Ken said.

Mrs. Winston Barradyne nodded vaguely, turning her head from left to right to take in the room behind Ken’s back. She always did this, and it always made Ken uncomfortable. What was back there, on the breakfront, was the collection of photographs Ken had brought from home after his mother had died. Most of the photographs were of her, stuck into silver frames, showing a progression from her days at Oldfields to the beginning of her last illness. Some of them were of the house where not only Ken, but his mother, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother had all grown up. The house was now on the National Historical Register and in limbo. No decision could be made about what to do with it until the intricacies of Ken’s mother’s will were cleared up. Ken always felt that Mrs. Winston Barradyne lusted after those pictures, the way he always thought she lusted after his house. President of the Historical Society or not, she lived in a brand-new ranch house in Belleville’s only subdivision. Her husband insisted on it.

Ken picked up his hiking boots from the patch of indoor-outdoor carpet he kept for them near the door and held them in his hands, blocking the woman’s view of the breakfront. Now she had nothing to look at but the picture of the college hiking club he kept on the coffee table next to Donegal Steele’s book.

“This man,” Mrs. Winston Barradyne said, “made me very uncomfortable. He seemed to be insinuating something.”

“He always does.”

“He treated our entire interview as a kind of—clandestine tryst, I suppose you’d have to say. As if we were a pair of counterspies.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Ken said. “He’s a very strange man.”

“I am perfectly aware of the fact that he’s a very strange man.” Mrs. Winston Barradyne picked up the picture of the hiking club. There were a dozen people in it. Ken was probably the only one she recognized. She put it down again. “Have you read Bernard Oldenston’s books on the American Revolution?”

“Of course.”

“There’s a lot of that sort of thing going on now,” she said. “Debunking. Digging up nasty personal scandals of national heroes. Making careers and reputations by blackening the names of the people who founded this country. It’s not just the Revolution, either. Have you read Oldenston’s book on Abraham Lincoln?”

“No.”

“All about how Lincoln was supposed to have hated black people and thought they were stupid,” Mrs. Winston Barradyne said. “I wrote Oldenston a letter after I read it, asking what possible difference it could make, even if it were true. It wasn’t what Lincoln thought that matters. It was what he did. That’s how I feel about Dr. Bernard Oldenston, too. I don’t care a fig for what his motives are. What his actions are is reprehensible.”

“Donegal Steele is no Bernard Oldenston,” Ken said.

“I know. But—” Mrs. Winston Barradyne rubbed at the tweed skirt of her suit. “I was thinking, after the talk I had with him yesterday, that he might be trying to turn himself into a Bernard Oldenston. You see what I mean. Dr. Steele has written this book.” She looked down at the book and frowned. “The book has sold a great many copies. Now what?”

“Now,” Ken said, “he does his damnedest to make sure that he gets installed as Head of the Program.”

“You ought to be installed as Head of the Program.”

“Actually, Dr. Elkinson ought to be installed as Head of the Program, but that’s neither here nor there. I’ve been through all the files you’ve got, Mrs. Barradyne. Even if Donegal Steele is looking for someone’s reputation to destroy, he won’t find the ammunition to do it with over at the Historical Society. I know for a fact there’s nothing like that there.”

“You’re not worried about what he might be up to?”

“No, of course not.”

“You’re much too easygoing,” Mrs. Winston Barradyne said. “You were like that even as a child. I remember how Lucy used to fret over you, always letting other children take your lunches and never hitting back.”

“Funny,” Ken said, “in the army, they used to tell me I was a regular savage.”

“Oh, the
army
.” Mrs. Winston Barradyne stood up. “You
are
much too easygoing, Kenneth, no matter what you like to think. I know you’re comfortable the way you are, but you ought to have higher ambitions for yourself. You’re a very accomplished young man. You shouldn’t let this—this fake take away your chance of promotion.”

“I don’t need a promotion, Mrs. Barradyne. I’ve got tenure. And it’s like I said. If I had to vote for a new Head of the Program, I’d—”

“Choose Dr. Elkinson,” Mrs. Barradyne finished for him. “Yes, I know. I happen to think Dr. Elkinson has more sense than that, though. I don’t think she wants to be Head of an academic department her husband is working in.”

“I’m not her husband yet.”

“But you’re going to be,” Mrs. Barradyne said. She had moved all the way to the door, walking carefully over the mud and between the scraps of crepe paper. She still looked worried. “I think you ought to sit down and give it some serious thought,” she said. “He really was very strange when he came to see me, and he got stranger after he looked through the files. I didn’t like the man, Kenneth, and I don’t think you should like him either.”

“I don’t.”

“I think you should do something about it for once.”

Mrs. Winston Barradyne twisted the knob, and opened the door, and stepped out into the hall. Like Ken’s apartment, it was full of crepe paper and cardboard masks.

“Really, Kenneth,” she said, “the man is up to no good. I’ve had two fine, upstanding husbands, and I know shenanigans when I see them.”

Then she pulled the door shut and made herself disappear.

On the other side of the room, the window began to bounce and jangle and sing. Ken turned around and found Lenore, pecking at the glass, asking to be let in.

He didn’t think he had ever been so frightened in his life.

7

“T
HE REAL PROBLEM WITH
the people around here,” Dr. Alice Elkinson said to Dr. Lynn Granger, “isn’t that they play academic politics. I took my doctorate at Berkeley. Trust me, I know academic politics. The problem with the people around here is that they’re so damn
Federalist
about it.”

“That’s better than being so damn Marxist about it,” Lynn Granger said. She was standing on a chair, trying to be absolutely still, while Alice pinned up the hem of her white muslin ghost’s shroud. Alice was in a very bad mood. Originally, she had wanted the women faculty at Constitution House to dress up as witches, but Katherine Branch had had a total fit about it in the Faculty Senate, and that had had to be shelved. The ghosts’ shrouds weren’t nearly as good, being practically genderless. Alice Elkinson had always been very much at peace with herself about being female. Unlike many of the women she had known in her life, especially in graduate school, she had never for a minute thought less of herself because she was a woman. She had certainly never wanted to be a man. The idea of walking around in one of these white tents, when she had a body that belonged on the cover of
Cosmopolitan
magazine, made her positively furious.

On the other hand, she did not have a dress style that belonged on the cover of
Cosmopolitan
magazine. At the moment, she was dressed in her customary jeans, turtleneck, and tunic sweater—what she wore whenever she was not actually in class. Students used to seeing Dr. Alice Elkinson walking back and forth in front of a blackboard in three-inch heels and a Diane Chambers dress were always a little startled the first time they showed up for office hours. Alice had a tendency to meet her students while seated cross-legged on top of her desk in Liberty Hall. What with one thing and another—the thick cloud of honey blond hair that was perfectly natural; the finely etched bones of her Raphael face; the fact that she was only thirty-two, already tenured, and the country’s leading authority on original intent in the United States Constitution—Alice was something of a legend on the Independence College campus. She was also the only person in the history of the institution who had been granted tenure in under five years.

Now she stabbed the last pin in Lynn Granger’s hem and said, “Get that thing off and we’ll sew it. It’s dowdy as hell, but I don’t see what we can do about it at this late date.”

“I don’t see what we can do about anything.” Lynn stepped off the chair and pulled the shroud over her head. “I know you’re frustrated, Alice, but I don’t understand why you put up with it. You could go anywhere. Why stay here?”

“Why not? Look, I’ve been all those places you’re so depressed you couldn’t get a job at. Even if it wasn’t for the politics—I don’t mean the academic politics, I mean all that crap about being politically correct—what would I have there that I don’t have here? The right to tell people at cocktail parties that I teach at Harvard?”

“It would be nice,” Lynn Granger said.

“It would be crap. I got my B.A. at Harvard. I ended up graduating in three years because I couldn’t stand the place.”

“I got my B.A. at Southern Connecticut State,” Lynn Granger said dryly. “I ended up graduating in five years because I flunked my math requirement twice.”

“You just got a late start in academics, Lynn. You shouldn’t judge yourself on the things you did while you were undergoing adolescent paralysis.”

“A lot of people don’t seem to go through adolescent paralysis.”

“If they don’t go through it as adolescents, they go crazy when they’re forty.”

“Like Donegal Steele?” Lynn said.

Alice Elkinson had put the shroud down on the sewing machine and slid the hem of it carefully under the needle. Now she looked up, caught Lynn Granger’s eye, and burst out laughing.

“Oh, Lord,” she said. “Donegal Steele.”

“Don’t you mind it?” Lynn asked her. “The man comes in here, spends all his time trying to take over your life, runs around bad-mouthing you to the administration, puts his hand up your skirt twice a day—”

“Donegal Steele is a lot older than forty.”

The sewing machine was making a very odd noise. Alice had turned it on without thinking about it, and now the shroud’s hem was caught in the bobbin thread and bunching up. She switched the machine off automatically and began to unravel the mess. The truth was, she did mind about Donegal Steele, she minded very badly, but not in any way she could explain to Lynn Granger. Lynn was a brand-new faculty member, just arrived on campus this term. She had an equally brand-new doctorate under her arm, from Michigan State, Alice didn’t think she had ever met anyone who had actually completed a doctorate who was as self-conscious, excruciatingly insecure as Lynn. Alice could have understood it if Lynn’s insecurities had centered on her appearance, which was bulgy and a little sad. Lynn’s insecurities centered on her intelligence, and that made no sense to Alice at all. A doctorate, even from Michigan State, was a doctorate. Most people didn’t have one.

The shroud’s hem was unraveled. Alice put it back under the needle.

“What I mind,” she said, “isn’t so much what Steele’s doing to me—I can take care of me. What I mind is what he’s doing to Ken.”

“What he’s doing to Ken is what he’s doing to everyone else,” Lynn said. “I heard him in the Beer Cellar the other night, ranting and raving about what an unutterable fool Dr. Carraway was. Dr. Carraway was sitting in a booth in the corner with three of his students.”

“Well, that’s Donegal Steele, all right. But that isn’t what I’m worried about. Ken can handle that. It’s all this nonsense about being Head of Program.”

“Do you think they’d really make Donegal Steele Head of Program?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. But Steele’s always pushing it at Ken, you know, hammering away at it. Ken’s given his life to this college, for God’s sake.”

“Ken’s not as good an historian as you.”

“I think you’re wrong, but that’s not the point. There’s more to being Head of Program than being a good historian. No matter what you think, I’d be a thoroughly lousy Head. Some fool would come into my office, spill his neuroses all over my desk, and I’d decapitate him.”

“Decapitate Donegal Steele.”

“I’ve been thinking about biting him hard enough to tear flesh the next time he pinches my ass. Do me a favor, will you? Go out on the porch and get me the hand bleach. This thing seems to be turning grey.”

“Hand bleach,” Lynn repeated dubiously.

“It’s the one in the white bucket.”

Lynn tromped off through the kitchen. A moment later, Alice heard her open the back door and go out on the “porch,” which was really a balcony. That was when she began to get a little nervous. She kept a lot of things out on that porch. She never worried about them, because nobody ever went there but herself. With the way Lynn felt about her, it would only be natural if Lynn went looking through things she shouldn’t touch.

Alice got up off the sewing machine stool, walked through the kitchen, and came to a halt at the open back door. Lynn was standing in the middle of the porch holding the white plastic bucket of hand bleach. She was frowning down at the other buckets, all blue and all painted over in red with skulls and crossbones.

“Are the skulls and crossbones real?” she asked Alice. “Are those trick-or-treat buckets, or what?”

“No,” Alice said. “They’re not trick-or-treat buckets.”

“What are they?”

Alice rubbed the side of her face with her hand. She didn’t like having those buckets on her porch. She didn’t like having them anywhere in her life? It bothered the hell out of her that she needed what was in them.

Lynn was still standing out there in the wind, head tilted, curious. Alice cleared her throat.

BOOK: Quoth the Raven
7.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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