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Hale Markham's death had been big news, of course. It was even the subject of a brief conversation I had with Nero Wolfe. We were sitting in the office, he with beer and I with a Scotch-and-water, going through our copies of the Gazette before dinner.
"See where this guy up at Prescott U. fell into a ravine on the campus and got himself killed?" I asked, to be chatty. Wolfe only grunted, but I've never been one to let a low-grade grunt stop me. "Wasn't he the one whose book—they mention it here in the story: Bleeding Hearts Can Kill—got you so worked up a couple of years back?"
Wolfe lowered his paper, sighed, and glared at a spot on the wall six inches above my head. "The man was a political Neanderthal," he rumbled. "He would have been supremely happy in the court of Louis XIV. And the book to which you refer is a monumental exercise in fatuity." I sensed the subject was closed, so I grunted myself and turned to the sports pages.
I probably wouldn't have thought any more about that scrap of dialogue except now, three weeks later, a small, balding, fiftyish specimen with brown-rimmed glasses and a sportcoat that could have won a blue ribbon in a quilting contest perched on the red leather chair in the office and stubbornly repeated the statement that had persuaded me to see him in the first place.
"Hale Markham was murdered," he said. "I'm unswerving in this conviction."
Let me back up a bit. The man before me had a name: Walter Willis Cortland. He had called the day before, Monday, introducing himself as a political science professor at Prescott University and a colleague of the late Hale Markham's. He then dropped the bombshell that Markham's death had not been a mishap.
I had asked Cortland over the phone if he'd passed his contention along to the local cops. "It's no contention, Mr. Goodwin, it's a fact," he'd snapped, adding that he had indeed visited the town police in Prescott, but they hadn't seemed much interested in what he had to say. I could see why: Based on what little he told me over the phone, Cortland didn't have a scrap of evidence to prove Markham's tumble was murder, nor did he seem inclined, in his zeal for truth, to nominate a culprit. So why, you ask, had I agreed to see him? Good question. I must admit it was at least partly vanity.
When he phoned at ten-twenty that morning and I answered "Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking," Cortland had cleared his throat twice, paused, and said, "Ah, yes, Mr. Archie Goodwin. You're really the one with whom I wish to converse. I've read about your employer, Nero Wolfe, and how he devotes four hours every day, nine to eleven before lunch and four to six in the afternoon, to the sumptuous blooms on the roof of your brownstone. That's why I chose this time to call. I also know how difficult it is to galvanize Mr. Wolfe to undertake a case, but that you have a reputation for being a bit more, er ... open-minded."
"If you're saying I'm easy, forget it," I said. "Somebody has to screen Mr. Wolfe's calls, or who knows what he'd be having to turn down himself—requests to find missing wives, missing parakeets, and even missing gerbils. And believe me when I tell you that Mr. Wolfe hates gerbils."
Cortland let loose with a tinny chuckle that probably was supposed to show he appreciated my wry brand of humor, then cleared his throat, which probably was supposed to show that now he was all business. "Oh, no, no, I didn't mean that you were ... uh, to use your term, easy," he stumbled, trying valiantly to recover.
"No, I, uh ..." He seemed to lose his way and cleared his throat several times before his mental processes kicked in again. "It's just that from what I've heard and read, anybody who has any, uh, hope of enticing Nero Wolfe to undertake a case has to approach you first. And that I am most willing to do. Most willing, Mr., er ... Goodwin." I braced for another throat-clearing interlude, and sure enough, it arrived on schedule. If this was his average conversational speed, the phone company must love this guy.
"I will lay my jeremiad before you and you alone, and trust you to relay it accurately to Mr. Wolfe. You have a reputation, if I am not mistaken, for reporting verbatim conversations of considerable duration."
Okay, so he was working on me. I knew it—after all, he had the subtlety of a jackhammer, but maybe that was part of his charm, if you could use that term on such a guy. And I was curious as to just what "information" he had about the late Hale Markham's death. Also, the word "jeremiad" always gets my attention.
"All right," I told him, "I'll see you tomorrow. What about ten in the morning?" He said that was fine, and I gave him the address of Wolfe's brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street near the Hudson.
The next day he rang our doorbell at precisely ten by my watch, which was one point in his favor. I've already described his appearance, which didn't surprise me at all when I saw him through the one-way glass in our front door. His looks matched his phone voice, which at least gave him another point for consistency. I let him in, shook a small but moderately firm paw, and ushered him to the red leather chair at the end of Wolfe's desk. So now you're up to speed, and we can go on.
"Okay, Mr. Cortland," I said, seated at my desk and turning to face him, "you've told me twice, on the phone and just now, that your colleague Hale Markham did not accidentally stumble down that ravine. Tell me more." I flipped open my notebook and poised a pen.
Cortland gave a tug at the knot of his blue wool tie and nudged his glasses up on his nose by pushing on one lens with his thumb, which probably explained why the glass was so smeared. "Yes. Well, perhaps I should discourse in commencement about Hale, although I'm sure you know something of him."
When I'd translated that, I nodded. "A little. I know, for instance, that he was a political conservative, to put it mildly, that he once had a newspaper column that ran all over the country, that he had written some books, and that he was more than a tad controversial."
"Succinct though superficial," Cortland said, sounding like a teacher grading his pupil. He studied the ceiling as if seeking divine guidance in choosing his next words—or else trying to reboard his train of thought. "Mr. Goodwin, Hale Markham was one of the few, uh, truly profound political thinkers in contemporary America. And like so many of the brilliant and visioned, he was constantly besieged and challenged, not just from the left, but from specious conservatives as well." He paused for breath, giving me the opportunity to cut in, but because it looked like he was on a roll I let him keep going, lest he lose his way.
"Hale was uncompromising in his philosophy, Mr. Goodwin, which is one of the myriad reasons I admired him and was a follower—a disciple, if you will. And do not discount this as mere idle palaver—I think I'm singularly qualified to speak—after all, I had known him nearly half again a score of years. Hale took a position and didn't back away. He was fiercely combative and outspoken in his convictions."
"Which were?" I asked after figuring out that half again a score is thirty.
Cortland spread his hands, palms up. "How to begin?" he said, rolling his eyes. "Among other things, that the federal government, with its welfare programs and its intrusions into other areas of the society where it has no business, has steadily—if sometimes unwittingly—been attenuating the moral fiber of the nation, and that government's size and scope must be curtailed. He had a detailed plan to reduce the government in stages over a twenty-year period. Its fundamental caveat was—"
"I get the general idea. He must have felt pretty good about Reagan."
"Oh, up to a point." Cortland fiddled some more with his tie and pushed up his glasses again with a thumb, blinking twice. "But he believed, and I concur, that the president has never truly been committed to substantially reducing the federal government's scope. The man is far more form than substance."
That was enough political philosophy to hold me. "Let's get to Markham's death," I suggested. "You say you're positive his fall down that ravine was no accident. Why?"
Cortland folded his arms and looked at the ceiling again. "Mr. Goodwin, for one thing, Hale walked a great deal." He took a deep breath as if trying to think what to say next, and he was quiet for so long that I had to stare hard at him to get his engine started again. "In recent years, walking had been his major form of exercise. Claimed it expurgated his mind. Almost every night, he followed the identical course, which he informed me was almost exactly four miles. He started from his house, just off campus, and the route took him past the Student Union and the Central Quadrangle, then around the library and through an area called the Old Oaks and then—have you ever been up to Prescott, Mr. Goodwin?"
"Once, years ago, for a football game, against Rutgers. Your boys kicked a field goal to win, right at the end. It was quite an upset."
Cortland allowed himself a sliver-thin smile, which was apparently the only kind he had, then nodded absently. "Yes ... now that you mention it, I think I remember. Probably the only time we ever beat them. We had a ... Rhodes Scholar in the backfield. Extraordinary chap. Name escapes me. Lives in Sri Lanka now, can't recall why." He shook his head and blinked. "Where was I? Oh, yes. Anyway, you should remember how hilly the terrain of our campus is, which isn't surprising, given that we're so close to the Hudson. Innumerable times, Prescott has been cited as the most picturesque university in the nation. There are several ravines cutting through it, and the biggest one is named Caldwell's Gash—I believe after one of the first settlers to the area. It's maybe one hundred fifty feet deep, with fairly steep sides, and the Old Oaks, a grove of trees that looks to me like it's getting perilously decrepit, is along one side of the Gash. Hale's walk always took him through the Oaks and close to the edge of the Gash."
"Is there a fence?"
"A fence?" Another long pause as Cortland reexamined the ceiling. "Yes, yes, there had been—there was ... years ago. But at some point, it must have fallen apart, and never got replaced. The paved, uh, bicycle path through the Oaks is quite a distance from the edge—maybe thirty feet—and there are warning signs posted. On his postprandial strolls, though, Hale sometimes left the path—I know, I've walked with him many a time—and took a course somewhat closer to the edge."
"So who's to say your friend didn't get a little too close just this once and go over the cliff?"
"Not Hale Markham." Cortland shook his small head vigorously, sending his glasses halfway down his nose. "This was a dedicated walker. He even wore hiking boots, for instance. And he was very surefooted—his age, which happened to be seventy-three, shouldn't deceive you. During his younger days, he'd done quite a bit of serious mountain climbing, both out west and, er, in the Alps. No sir, Hale would not under any circumstances have slipped over the edge of the Gash."
"Was the ground wet or muddy at the time?"
"It had not rained for days."
"What about suicide?"
He bristled. "Inconceivable! Hale reveled in life too much. His health was good, remarkably good for his age. No note of any kind was discovered. I should know—I checked through his papers at home. I'm the executor of his estate."
"What about an autopsy?"
"No autopsy. The doctor who examined the body said Hale died of a broken neck, a tragic consequence of the fall. He estimated the time of death to have been between ten and midnight. And the medical examiner set it down as accidental death. But there really wasn't any kind of an investigation to speak of. Most distressing."
"All right," I said, "let's assume for purposes of discussion that there is a murderer. Care to nominate any candidates?"
Cortland squirmed in the red leather chair, and twice he started to say something, but checked himself. He looked like he was having gas pains.
I gave him what I think of as my most earnest smile. "Look, even though you're not a client—not yet, anyway—I'm treating this conversation as confidential. Now, if you have evidence of a murder—that's different. Then, as a law-abiding, God-fearing, licensed private investigator, I'd have to report it to the police. But my guess is you don't have evidence. Am I right?"
He nodded, but still looked like something he ate didn't sit well with him. Then he did more squirming. The guy was getting on my nerves.
"Mr. Cortland, I appreciate your not wanting to come right out and call someone a murderer without evidence, but if I can get Mr. Wolfe to see you—and I won't guarantee it—he's going to press pretty hard. You can hold out on me, but he'll demand at the very least some suppositions. Do you have any?"
Cortland made a few more twitchy movements, crossed his legs, and got more fingerprints on his lenses. "There were a number of people at Prescott who ... weren't exactly fond of Hale," he said, avoiding my eyes. "I'd, uh, chalk a lot of it up to jealousy."
"Let's get specific. But first, was Markham married?"
"He had been, but his wife died, almost ten years ago."
"None. He was devoted to Lois—that was his wife. She was one of a kind, Mr. Goodwin. I'm a bachelor, always have been, but if I'd ever been fortunate enough to meet a woman like Louis Markham, my life would have taken on a Byronic richness that ... no matter, it's in the past. As far as children are concerned, Hale told me once that it was a major disappointment to both him and Lois that they never had a family."
"What about relatives?"
"He had one brother, who has been deceased for years. His only living relative is a niece, unmarried, in California. He left her about fifty thousand dollars, plus his house. I've been trying to get her to venture here to go through Hale's effects—we can't begin to contemplate selling the place until it is cleaned out, which will be an extensive chore. Hale lived there for more than thirty years."
"Has the niece said anything about when she might come east?"
"I've talked to her on the phone several times, and she keeps procrastinating," Cortland whined. "When I spoke to her last week, she promised that she'd arrive here before Thanksgiving. We'll see."
"Okay, you mentioned jealousy earlier. Who envied Markham?"
He lifted his shoulders and let them drop. "Oh, any number of people. For one, Keith Potter." He eyed me as if expecting a reaction.
"Well, of course," I said. "Why didn't I think of him myself? Okay—I give up. Who's Keith Potter?"
Cortland looked at me as if I'd just jumped out of a spaceship nude. "Keith Potter is none other than the beloved president of Prescott." He touched his forehead with a flourish that was probably supposed to be a dazzling gesture of sarcasm.
"Why was Potter jealous of Markham?"
I got another one of those long-suffering-teacher-working-with-a-dense-student looks. "Partly because Hale was better known than Potter. In fact, Hale was arguably the most celebrated person in the university's history. And we've had three Nobel Prize laureates through the years."
I nodded to show I was impressed. "So the president of the school resented its superstar teacher. Is that so unusual? I don't know much about the academic world, but one place or another I've gathered the impression that most colleges have a teacher or two who are often better known than the people who run the place."
"Unusual? I suppose not. But Potter—excuse me, Doctor Potter—is an empire builder. His not-so-secret goal is to sanctify his name by increasing the endowment to Prescott, thereby allowing him to erect more new buildings on the campus. The edifice complex, you know?" Cortland chuckled, crossed his arms over his stomach, and simpered.
"I don't mean to sound like a broken record, but that's not so unusual either, is it? Or such a bad thing for the university?"
"Maybe not," Cortland conceded, twitching. "If it's accompanied by a genuine respect for scholarship and research, uh, things that all schools aspiring to greatness should stress. But Potter desires, in effect, to upraise a monument to himself. That goal easily eclipses any desire on his part to improve the facilities purely for academic reasons."
Excerpted from The Bloodied Ivy by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 1988 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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