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Authors: Jane Haddam

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BOOK: Quoth the Raven
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“Right.” Bennis put the picnic basket back on the floor of the van and walked over to them. If it hadn’t been for the way she moved, they might have taken her for a college student herself. She had none of the slackness of skin, none of the distortions of body, that time and gravity visit on most people by the age of thirty-five. It was her sophistication and apparent self-confidence that was off, both too strongly settled and too deeply felt to belong to an adolescent.

She drew up to them, shoved her hands in her pockets and asked, “
Is
there a college around here somewhere? Is there anything?”

“Over there,” Tibor said solemnly, pointing away from the shack across a long flat expanse of ground that seemed to go nowhere. “What do you see?”

“Something orange,” Bennis said doubtfully.

“A pumpkin,” Gregor said.

“A jack-o’-lantern,” Tibor corrected them. “You see it from the back, so you can’t tell it has been carved. That is the top of King’s Scaffold there, King’s and the jack-o’-lantern is the head of mad King George. You know that they burn every year the effigy of King George?”

“I’ve heard of it,” Bennis said, doubtful again.

Gregor
tsk
ed at her with impatience. “It’s famous,” he told her. “At least, it’s famous in the state. There was some fuss a few years ago, the state Environmental Protection Agency tried to shut it down, the Governor practically had to call out the state militia.”

“Dr. Katherine Branch,” Father Tibor said.

“Who’s Dr. Katherine Branch?” Gregor asked him.

“The lady who started the fuss. She is a professor in the program in which I teach, Krekor, a very strange lady. She says she is the reincarnation of a witch.”

“Well,” Bennis said, “that’s perfect for Halloween.”

“For Halloween, Bennis, yes, but she does not confine her silliness to Halloween, if it is silliness. She is not a woman I like very much. There is another woman, Dr. Alice Elkinson, and her I do like very much. And a man. Kenneth Crockett.”

“Doctor?” Gregor asked.

“Oh, yes, Krekor. Here they are all doctors, except me, and I have what they call, what they call—”

“An equivalent,” Bennis said.

“Yes, Bennis, that is right. An equivalent. How they can possibly think I have an equivalent, considering how I studied, I do not know. Perhaps they think stubbornness under torture is educational. But it is as I said. Here they have only doctors, even in the most minor of teaching positions, which I think is a mistake. A doctorate is a degree for research. Here we do very little research. We teach.”

“You write,” Bennis pointed out.

“Yes, Bennis, I write. I write so much these days, I think I have diarrhea of the pen, to change an expression a student of mine explained to me the other day. I like my students, Krekor. They are very—enthusiastic. Very energetic. Uneducated to a point that is criminal, you understand, and in complete ignorance of history, but we do what we can about that.”

“Right now I think we ought to do what we can about these picnic baskets,” Bennis said. “Hannah and Lida packed them this morning, and they weigh a ton. We’ve got to get them to your room somehow, Tibor. I couldn’t just bring them back to Philadelphia.”

The three of them turned to look back at the van. Its side door was still open. The picnic basket Bennis had carried forward still sat on the carpeted floor just inside the door. A new wind was rising, even stiffer and chillier than the last, ruffling their hair and their clothes and the loose asphalt shingles on the roof of the shack.

“It’s hard to believe we’re only an hour and a half from Philadelphia,” Gregor said, and meant it. It was hard to believe they were still in the state of Pennsylvania.

Tibor brushed the palms of his hands against the sides of his robes, his customary gesture for getting on with it. “We will go down onto the campus,” he said. “We will leave the picnic baskets and ask some of the boys to come for them after lunch. The boys will not mind, Bennis. They are true Americans. Very obliging.”

“Is that what we are?”

“Yes, Bennis. That is what you are. Also very tolerant, very open-minded, very friendly, and very lazy. Especially intellectually lazy.
Tcha.
Such fine minds my students have and all they want to think about is
Batman, The Movie
. We will go now, Bennis, yes?”

“Yes,” Bennis said.

Gregor watched her walk across the tarmac to the van and slam the sliding side door shut, her hair whipping around her face in the wind and her jacket nearly falling off her shoulders. She was securing the sliders when he tapped Tibor on the shoulder and pointed across the parking lot at the shack.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“That is a shop for fixing cars,” Tibor told him. And then he grinned. “In Armenia, Krekor, when the Soviets came in—in my grandmother’s time this is—we had much trouble with a program that was to make us all comrades. In the end, the intelligentsia retreated into their offices and the mechanics into their garages and nothing was changed. Well, Krekor, here is capitalism for you. Here we have the cars for all the faculty. The Jeep over there is the car of a member of my Program, Dr. Crockett. They say maybe he would be the next Head. He has not a large reputation, but he is very local. But there, that black Mercedes, that belongs to a philosopher. A philosopher, Gregor, not a famous one, but still a philosopher. And like every other intellectual here, he fixes his own car!”

2

U
P IN THE PARKING
lot, it had been impossible for Gregor Demarkian to imagine that a full college campus—or a full measure of anything else artificial and civilized—was anywhere close. Once Tibor had led them down the narrow winding path that ended at Minuteman Field, it became impossible to imagine that the campus of Independence College could ever end. It wasn’t that the physical plant was so very big. Gregor had been a student at Harvard and a participant at conferences at Yale, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown. All those places had larger and more impressive collections of architecture, more inclusive and more diverse student bodies. Maybe the problem was that all those places were also set down in the middle of cities, so that they came to seem like just one more kink in an already tortuously convoluted urban landscape. Set down by itself, surrounded by nothing visible but trees and hills, Independence College defined itself—and its self-definition was distinctly eighteenth century. The redstone buildings were all Georgian and Federal in design. Even the ones whose shiny newness of material and lack of ivy indicated they must have been recently constructed maintained the artistic sensibility of 1778. Then there were the paths that had been threaded through the lawns from the door of one building to another, straight paths in straight lines, testimonies of symmetry to the triumph of reason. Lawns were lush but closely mown, hedges boxed and closely clipped. The statue of a Minuteman stood at the center of the largest quadrangle, at the place where all the quadrangle’s paths met. It had been cast in bronze and allowed to weather to green. Seen from halfway down the path from the parking lot, Gregor thought it radiated the confidence of self-control.

The campus had been built on what must have been the only piece of solidly flat land in this part of Pennsylvania, and at the moment it was crowded with students. Students in mummy costumes, students in Frankenstein costumes, students made up to look like undefined victims of bloody violence—in no time at all, Gregor began to feel shell-shocked by how many of them there were, and by how many of them seemed fascinated with death and gore. Obviously, Gregor thought, this must have been going on for some time. Tibor, usually the most squeamish of men, wasn’t fazed by it at all. Gregor caught a look at Bennis Hannaford and saw she wasn’t fazed by it, either. Maybe all those horror movies she watched with Donna Moradanyan had made her immune. Gregor refused to believe she had been inoculated by seeing her own sister dead on the floor.

When they got to the very bottom of the path, Tibor turned slightly sideways, and waved his arms in the air.

“There. There it is. Kings Scaffold and old King George. What do you think?”

Gregor didn’t know what to think. The Scaffold was impressive all by itself, a massive outcrop of rock jutting straight up from the ground, at least as high as a three-story building and maybe higher. The bonfire, though, was the kicker. It didn’t make a bit of difference that it was unlit. Hundreds of logs climbed up the rock face of the Scaffold, decorated here and there by bits of paper and cloth. At the top, regally seated on a plywood throne, was a straw-stuffed dummy that looked too much like a man. Only the jack-o’-lantern head, made it possible for Gregor to look at it without cringing.

“Good Lord,” Bennis said. “That’s very realistic, isn’t it?”

“The pile has gone too high for you to see its hands,” Tibor told her. “You can see them if you try. They give it all away.”

“I’m glad something gives it away,” Gregor said.

“Just a minute, Krekor. It is that boy there in the bat suit that we need. I will be back.”

Tibor darted into the crowd. Gregor returned his attention to the effigy, dodging visual interference from costumed revelers beneficent and malign: an Alice in Wonderland, a Devil with pitchfork and horns, a Little Red Riding Hood, a walking zombie from
Night of the Living Dead.
Everybody seemed to be carrying crepe paper streamers and confetti. Everybody seemed to be dancing to music that existed only inside their heads. Gregor kept having to beat back the nauseating suspicion that they all had the
same
music inside their heads. Finally he got momentarily clear of the crowd and caught a clear look at what he wanted: the effigy’s hands, white gloves badly stuffed with straw, much too small for anyone but a child.

“Tibor was right,” he said to Bennis Hannaford, who was standing just behind him. “Once you see the hands, the illusion’s broken. The hands are so wrong, you start to see what’s wrong with the rest of it.”

“That’s nice,” Bennis said. “I’m too damned short to see the hands.”

“Take my word for it. It’s not just the hands. The shoulders are two different sizes. The arms have lumps in all the wrong places. There isn’t any neck.”

“There isn’t a shred of mental stability on this entire college campus.”

Gregor had often thought there wasn’t a shred of mental stability on any college campus—but this wasn’t the time to bring it up, and Tibor was coming back. Coming with Tibor was a man—given his enormous size and muscularity, Gregor refused to call him a boy—in head-to-toe black, his hair and face and neck encased in a mask-hood, his arms and shoulders attached to a broad cape that looked like wings when he moved. Gregor looked at Bennis and Bennis looked back.

Tibor hopped to a stop in front of them—Tibor always hopped when he was excited—and pulled on the edge of the man’s cape.

“Bennis, Krekor,” he said. “This is Mr. Jack Carroll. Mr. Carroll is a student of mine.”

The man in the cape hesitated, then reached up and pulled the hood off his head. Now that he could see his face, Gregor had to give, Tibor his description—this was a boy, although not as boyish a boy as most of the others around him. If Gregor had been sizing up Jack Carroll for a possible job in the FBI, he would have said: very bright, very poor, working his way through.

Jack Carroll had the black hair and blue eyes and fair skin of a certain brand of Irishman. When he shook Gregor’s hand, his grip was as strong as a steelworker’s.

“Mr. Demarkian.” He took Bennis’s hand. “Miss—”

“Hannaford,” Bennis said faintly.

Gregor shot her a look that said:
This boy is ten years younger than you at least. Make sense.

Tibor was still prancing up and down, antsy. “Well,” he said. “Krekor, Bennis. Mr. Carroll has agreed to help us, you see. He will go to the van and get the picnic baskets—”

“If you don’t mind,” Jack Carroll said, “I’ll send Freddie and Max to get the picnic baskets. You know Freddie, Father. He’s the one who wrote the paper comparing James Madison to Chingachgook.”


Tcha
,” Tibor said. “This Freddie, he is a nice boy, but he is here because he has no other place to be. Yes, Mr. Carroll. Freddie and Max, this is fine. Listen to me, Krekor. When I like their work, I know to call them by their last names. When I don’t—” Tibor shrugged.

“I’d do it myself, but I’m supposed to be organizing a torchlight parade that goes off tonight. The witch’s parade, Father. You remember about that. It was Dr. Branch’s idea.”

“Mr. Carroll has a problem with Dr. Branch,” Tibor said.

“Everybody has a problem with Dr. Branch,” Jack Carroll said. He turned around to look up at the effigy and the students who surrounded it. Two tall ladders had been placed on either side of the pile of logs, but they weren’t tall enough. The students who stood on top of them, being passed logs like the end men in a bucket brigade, were tossing heavy pieces of wood into the air. Sometimes the pieces of wood landed on the pile and stayed there. Sometimes they bounced off and rolled down into the crowd. “That’s getting dangerous,” Jack Carroll said. “I’ll have to tell Mike to start loading from the top.”

“It’s very impressive,” Bennis told him.

“Yeah. Well. Like I said, I’ll go get Freddie and Max, they’ll get the stuff out of your van and bring it to Father Tibor’s room. Are you staying in Constitution House?”

“Mr. Demarkian is staying in the guest suite in Constitution House,” Tibor said, “Miss Hannaford is staying in the guest suite in Liberty House.”

“Miss Hannaford is staying on your floor,” Bennis said, “or Gregor’s.”

“Miss Hannaford is a law unto herself,” Gregor said.

Jack Carroll wasn’t listening. His attention had wandered from the effigy. He was staring into the crowd with an expression that was half-puzzled and half on the verge of angry. Gregor stared into the crowd with him, but saw nothing he would have called unusual, under the circumstances. There was a young girl dressed as a harlequin. There was a boy dressed up as Scrooge. There was somebody else, sex indeterminate, in an elephant suit. No fake blood, no fake wounds, no imaginary mutilations. It was all positively benign.

BOOK: Quoth the Raven
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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