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Test anxiety. Professor Benjamin Bradshaw knew it well. Bradshaw himself had never been good at written examinations. It was the blank page, the abstract theory that vexed him. Put him on a pole with a length of wire to string, give him the components of an electric motor to assemble, and his mind sang. This young man was much the same.
Professor Bradshaw spoke softly. "Mr. Daulton."
Oscar Daulton froze, gripping the pencil so tightly it snapped in two.
Bradshaw slid open his desk drawer and found a sharp lead pencil. As he stood, the squeal of his chair leg scraping the hardwood floor pierced the hollow silence. He crossed the empty classroom—the other students had long gone—and set the new pencil on the edge of Daulton's desk. The young man did not look up. He'd spread his hands protectively over his test, but Bradshaw could see some work had been done.
"Take your time." Bradshaw put a reassuring hand on the young man's shoulder. "I'm in no hurry."
He retreated to the window, his chest tight with the ghosts of his own youth. In his college years, he'd believed he would one day leave anxiety behind. Maturity and experience would sweep worry away. How wrong could he be? With age came new forms of anxiety. Apparently, thirty-five was the age of discovering oneself to be a plodding old fool, and the Kinetoscope, the modern-day mirror, reflecting what he'd been blissfully missing. Bradshaw squared his shoulders. Kinetoscopes be damned.
That blasted moving picture machine tick-tick-ticked in his mind. He saw himself once again—in black-and-white but unfortunately clear—trudge across the white plaster wall, the image growing larger, closer, until his own dour face stared out at him.
Professor Oglethorpe had laughed.
They'd all laughed at Bradshaw's ridiculous flickering image. To be fair, the students had laughed at everyone's image, their own included. But Oglethorpe's laugh had been loudest as Bradshaw lumbered about the moving picture, looking old, tired. Oglethorpe's laugh had been full of condescension and ridicule.
"Arrogant bastard," mumbled Bradshaw. He took a deep breath and thrust the flickering images, and Oglethorpe's laughter, from his mind.
The turret window of this second floor classroom projected forward, giving Bradshaw a view of the front of the building. He liked the way the sandstone and brick French Renaissance style building—complete with rounded turrets and conical candle-snuffer roofs—dwarfed the students climbing the steps to the portico entrance. The University of Washington, with its surrounding woodland and view of Mt. Rainier, inspired. He felt that was proper. Institutions of higher learning should humble those who enter them, encourage them to seek knowledge with a sense of awe.
Professor Oglethorpe was never awed. This morning, perfectly groomed and elegant in a navy suit, his wrists smugly buttoned with opal cufflinks, Oglethorpe had stood atop those impressive stairs as if he owned the building. His long frame limp with arrogance—he possessed odd, convex bones—he'd looked down his sharp nose with undisguised disgust as Bradshaw approached on his bicycle, sweating from his ride. With a sniff, he'd turned and entered the building, headed for that humiliating moving picture the entire engineering department was scheduled to view, leaving Bradshaw to park his bike and follow. A lamb to the slaughter.
Now the steps stood empty. Pink and white blossoms danced in the spring wind, drawing Bradshaw's gaze toward the expanse of green lawn and up to the shifting clouds.
Downstairs, the front doors banged shut, and a second later a student—Bradshaw recognized him as Artimus Lowe—hurried down the steps and onto the path only to disappear from view. The young man moved with a springing gait that Bradshaw envied. That's how I should move, he told himself. That's how I will move! He would stride as a professor ought to stride. He would not stew over his life like some addled old fool. He was far too young to be addled. A fool? Well, he could be that at any age.
He supposed he should be grateful he'd seen the truth of his appearance this morning, but he would much rather be ignorant. He hoped never again to see a recorded image of himself. He'd prefer not to see Professor Oglethorpe again either. If wishes were horses....
The Varsity Bell, in the belfry high atop the building, tolled. The pleasant note echoed until the wind erased the final resonance.
The classroom's electric lights blinked several times, mimicking the skittering clouds playing with the fading sunlight. "Name the causes of voltage fluctuations"—an exam question for another day.
Professor Bradshaw turned. Unexpected surprise and pleasure temporarily lifted his melancholy. Oscar Daulton had completed his test quickly, once the pressure of time had been lifted. The young man, his fair hair now finger-combed out of his face, handed Bradshaw his paper with a blush of gratitude for the extra time he'd been given, then rushed out the door. Bradshaw wondered why the young were always in such a hurry. He then sighed. Better to be in a hurry than to plod.
He slid Daulton's exam into his leather satchel as stray raindrops plinked against the window. He pulled on black rubber boots and a bright yellow slicker and descended the stairs to the main floor with a deliberate energetic bounce, but a steadying hand on the rail. In the main entryway, he thought of his son. He hoped the afternoon would clear long enough for a game of catch. Dour old men did not play catch with their sons. It stood to reason that he did not always appear as that film had captured him. Yes, a game of catch with Justin would lift his spirits tremendously if the weather would only cooperate. He'd reached the heavy oak doors, pushed one open, and a rush of damp wind whistled into his face and rustled his slicker. At the same moment, the building's lights flickered again, and the entry lamp in the ceiling directly above Bradshaw's head sizzled as the filament burned to a crisp. Bradshaw reluctantly hesitated, glancing about the entryway. The lamps in the wall sconces were dim as fireflies.
This was no simple fluctuation of the university's power plant, no fallen limb on a power line. Someone in the building was using a tremendous amount of power, and the only place tremendous amounts of power could be tapped was down in the electrical engineering lab. It was most likely Professor Oglethorpe down there causing trouble. Indeed, Bradshaw fumed, it was Professor Oglethorpe's interference, and not Edison's Kinetoscope, that was responsible for this entire, disastrous day.
Oglethorpe had provoked the students into building that modified Edison Kinetoscope by telling them they hadn't the skills to pull it off. Oglethorpe was responsible for Oscar Daulton's heightened test anxiety. Oglethorpe had all the electrical engineering students muddled and anxious with his indecipherable teaching method. And now, with the electrical students' big exhibition scheduled for tomorrow, Bradshaw suspected it could only be Oglethorpe down there in the lab, tampering with their Electric Machine in hopes of stealing all the glory for himself.
No, Bradshaw decided angrily. He wouldn't allow it. With a pang of regret, he abandoned thoughts of child and home and hurried instead to the stairwell, following the wide steps down to the basement. Before he reached the bottom step, he could hear the crackle of electric arcs. The pungent odor of ozone hovered outside the electrical engineering lab. Blue light danced erratically beneath the closed door. Bradshaw hesitated only a moment before putting his hand on the glass knob. He opened the door.
The laboratory lights were off, revealing the Electric Machine's full visual glory. Electric arcs erupted from the silver sphere atop the copper coil, and little needles of fiery purple arcs danced on the bars of the Faraday cage. Inside the cage, amidst the charged, poisonous, and deafening air, sat Professor Oglethorpe upon a three-legged stool, head propped against the metal bars, looking like a slumbering circus attraction: See Bird-Man in Giant Flaming Cage!
"Professor Oglethorpe!" Bradshaw buried his nose and mouth in the crook of his arm. What in God's name was Oglethorpe up to? Bradshaw flipped the switches that activated the lights and exhaust fans, and the roar of the blades joined the cacophony as they sucked the dangerous vapors from the building. "Oglethorpe!"
Professor Oglethorpe did not reply nor did he move. In the harsh glare of the overhead lights, Bradshaw couldn't see Oglethorpe's face, only the back of his dark, pomaded head. He was in shirtsleeves. His expensive navy cassimere vest and pants were not in their usual state of perfection, but askew. The vest rode high, revealing an expanse of white shirt. A pant leg bunched about the calf.
Bradshaw choked. A pompous black silk stocking adorned with white polka dots had broken free of its supporter. It had fallen into a puddle above Oglethorpe's polished leather shoe, exposing a pale ankle. The sight of it, above all else, sent a shiver of alarm through him.
He turned the safety key of the Electric Machine to the off position. Immediately, the arcing ceased. Only the ventilation fans now disturbed the air. He yanked the electric plug from the building supply socket as a final precaution. A burning acrid smell rose in a thin haze from the wires hanging from the ceiling that spelled "Welcome President McKinley" against hard, and now over-heated, black rubber plates.
A numb sort of unreality possessed him as he climbed the steps to the cage. Oglethorpe was so very still. Bradshaw avoided looking at the puddled polka dot sock, the exposed ankle. Slowly, he opened the cage door and stared in stunned silence at Oglethorpe's extended hand, at his slightly curved index finger protruding from the safety of the cage. The tip of the finger was blackish-red and swollen. A trickle of smoke rose from the charred flesh. The rest of the finger, the rest of the hand, was absent of color, bloodless.
He whispered, "Dear God," and staggered back away from the smell of cooked flesh.
And then Oglethorpe moved. Slowly at first, he began to tip sideways. His head lolled, his torso collapsed, his arms flopped uselessly. And then he dropped with a sickening thud to the wooden floor. His face was pasty white, his thin lips blue, his grey eyes clouded, staring vacantly directly at Bradshaw.
If wishes were horses—he hadn't meant it. He hadn't wished this.
The patrolman narrowed his eyes at Bradshaw. "It's a wonder any of us in this room is still alive."
There were by that time only the two of them in the room. Bradshaw felt it prudent to retreat to the other side where he'd begun taking notes. "It may appear lethal," he said, picking up his pencil, "but I assure you, it's working as it was designed to work, and it's perfectly safe when scientific principles are carefully observed."
Bradshaw, ignoring Mercer's glare, perched himself upon a lab stool and continued making notes, his pencil moving with confident precision, listing every detail of the Electric Machine as it had been when he entered the room. He took care with the diagram showing the configuration of the Leyden Jars that provided the tremendous amount of required stored energy, and he described the on position of the safety key, which now lay nestled in the safest place of all, the bottom of Patrolman Mercer's deep pocket.
"He was alone in that thing when you come in?" Patrolman Mercer's voice boomed so suddenly, Bradshaw jumped, toppling from his stool.
"Yes." Bradshaw regained his balance. "He was alone."
"So you think he turned on that contraption, crawled in that cage, and poked his finger through?"
"He couldn't have turned it on before he got in, it would be like walking through a lightning storm and grabbing hold of a lightning rod."
"Somebody else was here then?"
Bradshaw thought it probable, and said so, breathing more easily as the patrolman strolled away to cast his angry eye upon the Machine. Somebody else must have been here, but who? Had a student been assisting Oglethorpe, turned the key, then left Oglethorpe alone? No engineering student would do such a foolish thing. It was senseless, and more than anything Bradshaw abhorred senselessness. Especially in death. It unsettled him. It threw his own life into precarious balance, like watching that awful moving picture. What did it all mean? Why did any of them bother with life, with work, with caring, when it all came down to this? To sudden, irrational endings.
It was a scientific matter, he told himself, not a personal loss. Not like before.
Think of math, he told himself. Think of something safe. Algebra. Oglethorpe's sudden death was like an algebraic equation not yet deciphered. Yes. That was it.
He need only gather the pertinent information and solve for the unknown. Yes, the answer surely could be found in science. He jotted down the fundamental power equation, P=EI, and the orderliness of the algebra began to calm his mind. Mathematics had always appealed to him. There was nothing vague or cloudy in numbers. One did not have to second-guess the meaning of mathematical equations. They stood proudly and boldly, representing a universal truth. One plus one equaled two. Volts times amps equaled watts. In a world awash in confusion, algebra was a haven of clarity.
"What's that there mean? That zigzagging thing?"
Patrolman Mercer was once again breathing down his neck, but Bradshaw managed to stay seated. "It's the symbol for resistance." He launched into an explanation so full of scientific description it could have been one of Oglethorpe's own indecipherable lectures. It had the desired effect.
"Oh. Right." The patrolman was not quite able to mask his baffled expression with a frown. He strolled away to stand importantly in the doorway, rocking back and forth on his heels. Bradshaw, for the moment, could think in peace.
But the answer was going to be elusive. If something had gone wrong with the Machine, he couldn't see it. The students had done well. The Machine should have been completely safe when operated correctly. So what had Oglethorpe done wrong? Bradshaw saw no evidence that he had altered the Machine in any way. And Oglethorpe extending one of his curved fingers outside the cage was as foolish and unexpected an act as Patrolman Mercer tossing a loaded revolver into the air.
Why had he done it? Suicide? The loathsome word struck Bradshaw so powerfully, he snapped his pencil in two. He looked at the broken pieces in his hands and shook his head wryly. He had no more control over his anxiety than his student. The Patrolman lifted a suspicious eyebrow.
This was not suicide. He need not go there. Oglethorpe, the self-proclaimed genius of electrical engineering, would not have intentionally taken his own life. Behind the conceited confidence, Bradshaw hadn't detected an underlying insecurity. There'd been no hint of depression or desperation. The man had everything to live for and had bragged of it. A successful career, prominent friends, a new mansion paid for by shrewd investments.
Excerpted from A Spark of Death by Bernadette Pajer Copyright © 2011 by Bernadette Pajer . Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 13, 2012
Posted January 4, 2013
I read a lot of mysteries and historical novels and this is one of the best. I just found out that Pajer has written a second Professor Bradshaw novel too. I can't wait to read it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 2012
Posted October 24, 2011
Interesting new subject for historical mysteries. Lots of factual info along with a good cast of characters that you see develop as the story moves along at a good pace. Fans of turn of the century, the birth of modern day electricity and early western education will no doubt enjoy this along with anyone who reads Nancy Means Wright,Elizabeth Peters and Anne Perry. Looking forward to the second in the series. Have added the author to my hard cover/ebook list. Buying Hard Cover says it all !!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2012
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Posted December 6, 2012
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Posted December 9, 2012
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