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A Corpse on the Campus
Having come of age in the AIDS decade of the 1990's, Brandy Mather reached the millennium and the age of twenty-eight as a virgin. She was not unique among girls who grew up in West Kentucky. In high school she learned several ways to bring a human male to climax without intercourse. In college, she came very close to marrying the first man she met who knew how to reciprocate.
In college she also discovered criminal psychology, which led her first to the Police Academy, then back to her hometown of Murphy, Kentucky. Brandy was the first female police officer to move from traffic patrol into the crime division. There were no further divisions; even though Murphy was the county seat of Callahan County and boasted a regional university numbering 8000 students, the city was not large enough to require separate juvenile, vice, or homicide squads. It was all in a cop's day's work.
Brandy had just been promoted to plainclothes work -- mostly because the department felt it wise to have a woman handle the increasing reports of spouse and child abuse as well as rape. That late summer the case that was to change her life occurred. It was a Friday, and Brandy looked forward to having the weekend off.
It had been one of those long, frustrating weeks when leads didn't pan out, stakeouts merely wasted hours, and the local citizenry chose to shoplift, throw eggs at each other's cars and houses, shoot out store windows in the middle of the night, and slash tires. Ex-husbands threatened former wives, visitors forged checks, and the police spent endless hours tracking delinquent husbands to serve flagrant non-support warrants. Nosatisfying saving of lives or solving of challenging cases. The paperwork thus generated only served to increase stress levels.
By 7:38 pm Brandy had finished her final report. "Go home and hug your kids," she told her colleague, Churchill Jones, with whom she shared the tiny detectives' office with its single computer. "Write the rest up in the morning. If you try to do it now you'll be here till midnight." Church was a perfectionist about his written work.
"You okay?" he asked. "Maybe you should see your mom tonight."
Brandy winced. Close to his own parents, Church couldn't fathom the gap between herself and her mother, grown even wider since her father's death. Thank God her mom was dating again; Brandy no longer her sole emotional support.
"I'll be all right," she responded. "The VCR's been taping movies all week. I'm going to be a couch potato."
"Not all weekend," Church told her in a tone that brooked no denial. "You're coming to Sunday dinner -- noon sharp. I'm barbecuing."
"Okay. I'll bring mint chip ice cream." It was his kids' favorite.
So Brandy was alone when the call from Jackson Purchase State University came in: a dead body in Callahan Hall.
"After this crazy week," she commented flippantly, "what's another corpse?"
What it was, was a mystery. The body was in the office of Professor Everett Land, but the curious students and faculty who had gathered said it was not the professor. Campus security had made sure that no one trampled through the room nor moved the body. It sat in the chair behind the desk, eyes closed, hands folded over sunken belly, as if the man had just slept away.
Not a bad theory, for the man was extremely old. Face and hands were bony, flesh shrunken, nose and knuckles protruding. Wispy white hair clung to the skull. The eyes were sunk deep in their sockets.
There was no sign of struggle or pain; the man appeared to have died peacefully, a beatific smile on his face.
But who was he?
The office was one of only three in the Classics Department, Classics being one of those subjects, like philosophy, that no one would dream of majoring in. When Brandy had attended JPSU a decade ago there had been talk of phasing out such departments in the regional universities. Who in West Kentucky needed Virgil or Sophocles?
The custodian, Mary Samuels, remembered that Land's office had been unlocked -- and that was unusual, as the lights had been off. Dr. Land was normally either in with the lights on, or out with the door locked, when she came to clean.
Samuels was a good witness. "I turn on the lights," she explained, "an' there's this ol' man. But he's -- you know -- not moving. I mean at all. I got a creepy feeling, tried to wake him up. When I touched him I knowed he was dead." She wiped her hand on her smock at the memory.
There were no evening classes on Friday. Very few people were in the building. Next-door the Philosophy Department was dark and locked. Across the hall in the History Department, Professor Jane Mason had a meeting with a student working on a Master's Thesis. They had brought a bucket of chicken, and were just settling down to work when the commotion in Classics caught their attention. Another history professor, Miller Kramden, didn't know anything had happened until a student poked her head in to say someone had died.
As word spread, more people arrived to check out the rumor. The body could not be moved until the coroner had examined it and Brandy had taken photos and prints. She let people look from the doorway, hoping someone could identify the corpse. No one could.
Meanwhile, she tried telephoning Professor Land at home. She got an answering machine.
Budget constraints required Murphy detectives to work alone, so Brandy enlisted the help of Campus Security Chief Howard McBride, a retired cop with many more years of experience than she had, to investigate the crime scene. While they were working, Dr. Troy Sanford, the coroner, arrived. "Can't be sure till the autopsy," he said, "but there's no signs of foul play. Looks like natural causes."
"But who is he?" Brandy asked in frustration as she searched the pockets and bagged the contents: pipe, tobacco, butane lighter, 73\\a162 in change, pocket knife, handkerchief -- linty, as if carried unused for quite some time -- and chalk in a plastic holder. She gave the man's wallet to McBride to fingerprint.
There was $62.00 in bills, a faculty I.D., and a driver's license. The laminated plastic documents showed a man in his forties, with thick curly brown hair and blue eyes. Brandy read the name on the faculty I.D.: Everett Land, Ph.D., Professor, Classics Department.
"Oh, damn," said Brandy. A crime had been committed, even if it was only some obscene practical joke. Someone had planted Land's wallet on the corpse. The money in the wallet made it petty theft. There was a MasterCard, too, a group medical insurance card, social security card, and an automatic teller card.
There were no family photos.
Doc Sanford estimated the death as occurring between 5:30 and 7:00pm. "He could have walked in here alive."
"But someone went over the desk pretty carefully," said McBride. "No fingerprints there or on the bookshelves. A few on the filing cabinet and the doorknob, but they'll probably turn out to be the custodian's."
"You're suggesting someone wiped the prints away?" Brandy asked.
"Looks that way -- very thorough job, too. There's not even a print under here," he showed her as he pulled the last piece of clear fingerprint tape from the bottom edge of the main desk drawer. It was one of those flat, shallow drawers without a handle, opened by sliding it out with a hand on the bottom of the drawer. "Probably not a student," McBride said. "When we've had break-ins by kids looking for exams or grade books, even when they think to wipe away prints they always forget that spot. This is a pro."
So someone had searched the desk. "But what was he looking for?" Tired and half giddy from no supper and only microwave soup for lunch, Brandy did not like the direction this event was taking. That was how crimes went in America's Heartland: either simple and straightforward and solved within hours, or totally confused, committed by people with warped imaginations and half-baked ideas of witchcraft and Satanism.
Hardly had the thought crossed her mind than she heard the gossip start. Students, faculty, and staff began to speculate, "Who is it?" "Somebody musta stole the corpse and put ol' man Land's I.D. on it. Show what a mean old bastard he is." "No -- it's the Satanists! That is Professor Land. They put a death curse on him!"
The headache that had been incipient all day grasped Brandy's skull with fingers of steel. She bagged the wallet and told McBride and Sanford, "Until we find out who this guy is, and locate Dr. Land, it'll be early Halloween!"
She turned to the gathered faculty and students. "You are not witnesses unless you were here earlier, between the time the secretary left..."
As she hoped, one of the students supplied, "4:30."
"If you were here between 4:30 and the time Security arrived, please try to recall anything that would tell us who brought this body in, and how. Or if you saw the man walk in alive. Did anyone notice when Dr. Land left today?"
There was only head-shaking. The earlier Land had left, the wider the window of opportunity for sneaking the corpse into his office. Brandy remembered her own days as a student assistant in Sociology; even though it was a much larger department than Classics, there were times when absolutely no one was in the suite.
A call to the department secretary produced an answer, of sorts: Land had still been in his office when Ms. Sandoval left for the day.
Criminal intent or a really stupid prank? Brandy had to proceed as if it were the former. The coroner removed the body, leaving her to witnesses with little to contribute until a man Brandy hadn't seen before entered the suite.
Brandy was at the secretary's desk, just finishing taking notes from the history professor who had been working with her grad student. They had noticed nothing.
The new arrival asked, "Are you from the police?"
"I'm Detective Mather," Brandy told him. "We're investigating a body found in Dr. Land's office."
"No. But whoever put the body there planted Dr. Land's I.D. on it. That means some kind of crime was committed, at least a theft. Do you know anything about it?"
"I guess not, then. I'm Dan Martin, from Computer Science." He pronounced his last name 'Martine.' "I set up Rett's computer, showed him how to access the Internet."
"Did you see him today?"
He pondered. "All the faculty in this building see each other sometimes, in the elevators or the halls. I don't recall seeing Rett today. I just saw them carrying the body bag past my door. Someone said it was Dr. Land, so I came to see what had happened. Listen, I'm sorry for bothering you." He started to leave, then turned back. "But maybe I can help. You said somebody put the body in Rett's office. Do you know how?"
"Possibly he arrived alive, and died in the office."
"What does Rett say?"
"He's not here or at home. Any idea where he might be?"
Martin shook his head. "I don't know him that well -- academic rather than social friendship, if you know what I mean. But if the body was moved after it was dead, it didn't have to come through the office lobby."
This was interesting. "Oh?" Brandy asked.
"There were some computers stolen a few years ago," Martin explained. "Thieves broke a ground-floor window to get in. The ceilings are false, with heating and cooling ducts and the sprinkler system above them."
The university was notorious for lack of security; funds barely covered maintenance. Broken windows set off no alarms. Offices and laboratories, where equipment and vital data were kept, were all on upper floors or on inner walls with no windows. Most, like Land's, required not only a key to the office itself, but a different key to the suite door.
But now that Martin mentioned it -- "I remember," said Brandy. "They went over the ceilings into some offices and stole several PC's. I was a student at the time."
"It was before I arrived," said Martin, "but they still talk about it. Wouldn't be worth a thief's while today; most of the equipment is badly outdated."
"That must be frustrating," said Brandy, "trying to teach computer science on outmoded equipment."
"Oh, we've got some new technology for the upper-level students. Anyway, the ceilings are just a thought, if the coroner says the body was moved."
Brandy found herself smiling at Martin. She liked him -- and didn't know why. He certainly wasn't her type.
She didn't care much for intellectual men, although she got along well enough with the university faculty on professional matters. Murphy was three hundred miles from the police laboratories at Frankfort. It was easier to ask a local expert than someone that far away, and JPSU had the largest variety of experts in Western Kentucky.
Brandy didn't generally think of herself as preferring a particular type of man; she had dated blonds, brunettes, and redheads over the years. However, they had always been large and strong and all-American. This man was lean and wiry and faintly exotic.
Like many of the JPSU faculty, he didn't sound like a West Kentuckian, but his accent was Midwest American, nothing foreign about it. His hair and eyes were midnight black, his skin a fine, even gold, but his voice, deep and just a touch gravelly, was both memorable and sexy.
He was nothing like any man she had ever taken an interest in before.
And what was she doing taking an interest in the middle of an investigation? What in the world had sent her mind wandering in that direction? Brandy realized she had been smiling at him like a fool for several seconds, and broke the gaze to pick up her pen.
But she had nothing to write. Professor Mason had gone back to her office, and the custodian was waiting to lock up. "I guess I'm finished here for tonight," Brandy said. "Let's check your theory before I seal Dr. Land's office."
Back in the office, where the tape on the chair did not look anything like the shape of a body, they saw no sign that the large ceiling tiles had been moved. But Martin spotted something else. "Rett's backup disks are gone."
Martin gestured to an empty spot on the neat desk. "There should be a box of zip disks right there with all his backup files." He looked over at the bookcases, but there were no boxes of disks there, either. "No one that I train relies on a hard disk as his only copy!" he commented.
"Maybe he took them home. But I'll add it to the report, and we'll see what the autopsy says," Brandy said, locking the door. Then she ran the yellow tape across the doorframe, to warn anyone from disturbing the scene.
"Where are you going now?" asked Martin.
"Back to the station. I have to write up a report."
"Now?" he asked in surprise.
Brandy looked at her watch. "It's only 8:50. I'll still get home in time to start a lazy weekend."
Martin walked with her through the corridor and punched the "Down" elevator button. Then, rather sheepishly, he said, "Look -- this may sound foolish, but I guess we're all curious about real police work, as opposed to what we see on television. Could I come with you, see what you do -- then maybe buy you a pizza?"
"I warn you," said Brandy, "it's not very exciting!"
"That's all right."
"Okay. I'll meet you at the station."
"Uh -- could I hitch a ride? I walked to campus today," he said as they rode down in the elevator.
"Sure. Just remember, if you have anything weird in mind, I carry a gun."
He chuckled, a small, quiet sound. "Anything I had in mind would not require a gun -- or handcuffs, either, in case you were concerned."
On the ground floor they stopped for Martin to turn off the monitor on his computer. "It's still running," Brandy noticed as the power light stayed on.
"Faxes may come in over the weekend," he explained.
Then he locked his office, a claustrophobic one without windows. There was no one else in the Computer Science suite, either, so he also locked the outer door, and they walked out to the parking lot.
The night was almost as bright as day, the full moon riding large over the rooftops. It would be early fall in New England and along the Great Lakes, sweater weather, football weather. In Western Kentucky it was still late summer, hot by day, warm at night.
They talked easily, like old friends, but Brandy could not have said what about. At the station Brandy wrote up her report as quickly as possible, growling as her tired fingers hit the wrong keys.
Martin came up behind her, so silently she didn't know he was there until his soft voice asked, "How long have you been on duty?"
Through a yawn, she replied, "Over twelve hours now." She didn't mention how badly she needed the overtime.
Warm fingers touched the back of her neck, massaged gently. "Relax." The deep voice was hypnotic, the hands magic. He rubbed from her hairline downward, the pain and tension seeming to follow his fingers down out of her head.
Brandy felt like a contented cat, ready to purr under Martin's petting. The cares of the endless week drifted away, and she leaned into his touch, entranced.
When Martin stopped, Brandy wondered if she had been literally in a trance, for she was suddenly wide awake, refreshed, and serene. "If you could bottle that," she told Martin, "you'd be a millionaire!"
"I don't want to be a millionaire," he replied. "I'd have to worry about people liking me only for my money."
It was easy, once her headache was relieved, for Brandy to finish her report. She signed out at last, and they drove over to Pizza Hut. There they discovered that they both liked pepperoni pizza.
Brandy was by now ravenously hungry. They had ordered a medium pizza -- and only as she halted her reach for the last piece did she realize to her embarrassment that she had consumed four slices to Martin's one.
"Go on," he said when he saw her hesitation. "I had dinner earlier. You obviously didn't."
The place was crowded with college kids, and there must have been a dozen cheery "Hi, Dr. Martin!" 's from students going in and out. But then, the new semester had just begun. Brandy recalled that students tended to like all their professors till about midterm.
She took in stride the stares she received, remembering how odd it was to realize that one's teachers had a life outside the classroom. Probably, she thought, his students wouldn't think much of Martin's taste in women. Brandy was in her plain-neat-suit work clothes, her hair scraped efficiently back into a twist, her makeup minimal.
Now that she thought of it, she was pretty much at her worst. Martin's interest seemed genuine. He asked about her work, family, education -- and as they sat nursing the final drops of Pepsi in red plastic glasses she realized, "You know all about me -- but I know nothing about you!"
"I grew up in Iowa," he said, "until I was twelve. Then we moved to Nebraska. I did undergraduate work in Computer Science at M.I.T., then got my doctorate at the University of Central Florida. I taught for a while at Florida State, then came here. I guess I like Kentucky because I'm still a farm boy at heart."
"You had a farm in Iowa?"
"Till my dad died. Mom couldn't scrape together enough money to run the farm and pay taxes at the same time, so she sold the farm and we moved in with her uncle in Nebraska. One of those big old houses in the middle of wheat fields, not another building as far as you can see."
"We drove across route 80 out to California one summer," said Brandy. "I remember thinking Nebraska was the emptiest place I'd ever seen. That was before we saw the Mojave Desert!"
"Yeah. I like it a little more populated, like here, or Indiana, or Iowa or Ohio."
"Ohio? I grew up in Ohio in the middle of a big city!" said Brandy.
"I meant the farmlands in the southern part of the state. I guess I'll never be completely happy as a city boy. I'm up for tenure this year. If I get it, I'm going to buy a place in the county. Not a farm; there's no future in small farms today, and I really love teaching. But I want some land, some woods, maybe a pond. A place where I can have a garden. And a nice, big, comfortable old house."
Brandy smiled. "I know what you mean. When Dad moved us from Cleveland to Murphy, it seemed like the back of beyond. I thought everyone was a redneck, the kids a bunch of yokels. But I've lived here more than half my life now, and y'know, Murphy's about the best compromise you're gonna find. Big enough to be civilized, small enough to be friendly. There are drugs, but not gangs, and we're not big enough for major dealers. We've got bootleggers, but nobody cares except during election campaigns. If it weren't for the chop shops, the family fights, and the drunk drivers, there wouldn't be much for police to do."
"Except investigate mysterious corpses," he said.
"I'm glad I took that call," said Brandy. "This case could take genuine detective work. I went into police work to solve crimes. Except for the ongoing drug operations, not a lot of real detective work is required on my job."
"No unsolved murders?" Martin asked.
"You read the papers. It's always the husband, the wife, the boyfriend, the girlfriend. No work to solve it. Hey!" she realized, "you've turned the conversation back to me again! I want to know more about you. You said your father died when you were twelve. Your mother?"
"Died in a car wreck when I was in college."
"Brothers and sisters?"
"One brother who died in the Gulf War."
Brandy did a quick calculation. "He must have been much older than you."
"No -- he went in the army at nineteen."
"Rough. You're pretty much alone, then, except for that uncle."
"He was Mom's uncle, and he's dead now, too. I guess I've still got some cousins, but I never stayed close to them. What about you?"
"My little brother died when I was ten. Hit by a car. I don't think my mother has forgiven me to this day."
"I wasn't watching him. I wasn't told to watch him that day -- it was right after school, no different from any other day. Les was playing ball. I was skipping rope with some other girls. I didn't know what had happened until I heard the boys screaming."
"It wasn't your fault," Martin said.
"I know. I knew then, although Mom almost convinced me I was wrong. But Dad stuck by me, and eventually we got over it."
She blinked. "You did it again! What have I known you for -- two hours? And you've got my whole life story! I didn't tell my best friend about Les till we'd known each other for months."
"I'm just a good listener," he said. That was when Brandy noticed that he didn't smile the way other men did when they uttered such pleasantries. Had she seen him smile at all? She wasn't sure.
"Well, good listener, I'm afraid it's time to go home," said Brandy as a new rush of customers entered the restaurant. She was amazed to see that it was 11:23. The 9:00pm movie must have just let out.
Ten minutes later Brandy found herself pulling up outside her own apartment building, Dan Martin still in the car. She didn't feel tired, though, and the night was bright with the full moon. "Wow. I must be so tired I spaced out," she said. "I didn't even ask where you live."
"That's okay. I'll walk home. But I'll see you to your front door first."
Brandy laughed. "I'm perfectly safe. I'm a cop, for goodness' sake!"
"And I'm a gentleman," he replied, getting out and coming around to open her car door. No man had done that since a couple of extremely shy boys in high school!
Deciding she did enough roaring as a police officer, Brandy let him hand her out of the car and walk her up the stairs. At her door, he said, "I want to see you again."
"I'd like that," she replied, and fought down a strong urge to invite him in. This was not the swinging 70's, when safe sex meant not banging your head on the headboard!
She had wanted men before, but never so strongly -- and never, ever, on a first acquaintance. She had always resisted, successfully.
Dan Martin took her in his arms, and Brandy discovered how comfortable it was to be held by someone only a few inches taller than she was. Their lips met without either getting a crick in the neck. It was as if they had kissed a thousand times before, knew each other's texture and rhythm.
She opened her mouth to his, found warmth and gentle teasing. He nibbled at her lips, then stroked his tongue under her chin and down her throat. It felt both weird and wonderful. She tilted her head, let him caress her neck.
Although they were standing, she practically lay in his arms. How strong he was, never a quiver of his muscles under her weight. She felt secure, protected, and eager. Finally, she knew what she had preserved her virginity for!
But even as Brandy sought to find Martin's mouth again with hers, he let her go. "I'm sorry!" he gasped, breaking the spell. "Please -- forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive," Brandy said, caught between confusion at his sudden change and the lingering desire he had evoked in her. "Why don't you come in?"
"Not tonight," he said, too hastily. "Please -- go inside, Brandy. You're too intoxicating by half."
It was not until the next morning that she realized she could not remember telling him her nickname. She had introduced herself as "Officer Mather." He would have seen "Brenda Mather" on the nameplate on her desk. But she hadn't misheard that remark about intoxication.
Brandy woke to her cat kneading her shoulder at 10:00am on Saturday morning. When she recalled last night's strange events, she knew she would have to find some pretext to look up Dan Martin again.
Unless he contacted her first.
Copyright © 2001 by Jean Lorrah