Read an Excerpt
Channel 13, the PBS station in New York City, had been conducting its annual fund-raising auction, and my smartass brother had bought me a dozen tympani lessons with the Principal Tympanist of the New York Philharmonic; that was his idea of a practical joke. As far as I was concerned, the joke was on dear old Garth: I got rhythm. It was easy enough to practice; all I needed was a score, two pencils and a flat surface to beat on. I had a full set of kettledrums on order, and I couldn't wait to hear Garth's latest discourse on what he believed to be my obsessive need to overcompensate.
With eight lessons behind me, I already had visions of auditioning for the New Jersey Symphony; at the very least, a dwarf tympanist should guarantee them a sold-out season.
It was a Friday morning at the end of July, and I was in my uptown office. I'd finished the summer courses I'd been teaching, I had no clients and there was absolutely nothing I had to do for six weeks. Paradise Now. I planned to gorge my head on New York's cultural cornucopia and drum the rest of the summer away.
I was in the middle of the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth, hoarsely pum-pum-pumming the main theme, tapping madly away in a big roll and impressive crescendo, when Dr. Peter Barnum, Chancellor of the university where I teach, knocked on my door and walked in. I finished the measure, then folded the score and dropped the pencils on top of it.
Barnum's craggy, sixty-year-old face was slightly flushed, and there were thin lines of tension around his mouth. He stopped in front of my desk and smiled tightly as he nodded toward the music score. "Are you thinking of changing departments, Dr. Frederickson?"
Barnum was an austere, distant man, and it was the first time I'd ever heard him try to be funny; it surprised me, since we usually gave each other a fairly wide berth. I had considerable respect for Barnum's administrative and fund-raising talents, but I didn't think he cared too much for me. He'd made clear in a number of faculty memos that he didn't approve of moonlighting college professors or celebrities on his staff; he knew I fitted into the first category, believed I was in imminent peril of joining the second. Also, in the past I'd suspected that he considered the idea of having a dwarf on his faculty somewhat undignified.
"I'd hoped I was getting the hang of the Criminology Department, Chancellor," I said, my tone idling in neutral gear. I rose and shook the long, bony hand he offered. It was moist. "Please sit down."
He did, nervously perching his tall, thin frame on the edge of the chair as if he were expecting someone to call him to a speaker's dais. "You're a fine professor, Dr. Frederickson," he said, clearing his throat and not quite looking at me. "Your teaching and scholarship have been uniformly excellent. I regret that we haven't been able to establish a more ... personal relationship. I'm afraid I'm simply not very gregarious."
"You're a fine chancellor, sir," I said, puzzled by the drift of the conversation but deciding it was time to toss a blossom back. "That's all any faculty member has the right to expect from you."
"You also have an impeccable reputation as a private investigator," he said like a man who was choosing his words carefully. "It's remarkable that a man with your handi —" I doubted that he saw anything in my face, but he stopped anyway and shook his head, embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he continued curtly. "The fact is that I'd like to hire you." He raised a hand, coughed lightly behind it. "I mean as a private detective."
Another surprise; Barnum was full of surprises. I sat and stared at him for a few moments, thinking about Tchaikovsky, hoping Barnum would change his mind and go away. He didn't. "You didn't have to drive up here, Chancellor," I said at last. "I would have been happy to see you at your office." If I was going to turn him down, the least I could do was be polite.
"I know you would have," he said, waving a skeletal hand in the air as though I'd made a preposterous suggestion. "I prefer it this way. Actually, I don't want anyone to see us together." He paused, blinked nervously. "What I have to say must remain in the strictest confidence, Dr. Frederickson."
For a change, the air conditioning in the building was working. Still, the few strands of white hair that ringed the bald dome of Barnum's head were damp with perspiration. A vein throbbed in his neck.
"Everything my clients tell me is taken in confidence," I replied evenly. "That's the way I work."
"But you haven't said whether or not you'll help me," Barnum said warily.
"You haven't told me what it is you want, Chancellor. Until you do, I can't commit myself. In any case, whatever you have to say will go no farther than this office."
Barnum passed a hand over his eyes as if trying to erase a bad vision, then leaned back in the chair and stared absently at the nameplate on my desk. Finally he raised his eyes and looked directly at me. "I'd like you to investigate Dr. Vincent Smathers," he said thickly.
That got my undivided attention and a long, low mental whistle. I could understand Barnum's penchant for secrecy. Vincent Smathers was the university's most recent — and rarest — prize catch; an experimental behavioral psychologist who was a Nobel laureate. University chancellors didn't normally make a habit of investigating their Nobel Prize winners; the usual procedure is to create a specially endowed one-hundred-thousand-dollar chair, which was precisely what had been done for Smathers.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"I ... hear things," Barnum said, his face reddening.
"What things, Chancellor?"
"I'm sorry," he said archly, "but I don't wish to repeat them. At this time they must be classified as nothing more than gossipy rumors. If you do agree to conduct this investigation for me, I don't want you to begin with any preconceived notions. I know it sounds strange, but I must insist it be done this way."
Barnum paused, raised his eyebrows slightly. When I didn't say anything, he continued in a lower, even more confidential tone: "As you know, we're under increasing financial pressure. I have a responsibility to protect the university from any scandal that could hurt our student recruitment or gaining of Federal grants. I just want to make certain that everything appears ... as it should."
"You mentioned rumors, but you talk as though something may already have happened. Is there anything now that doesn't appear as it should?"
"There is something ..." He shrugged, continued after a thoughtful pause. "I don't know; perhaps I'm being overly suspicious."
"Suspicious about what, Chancellor? It would help if you gave me some idea of what's bothering you."
Barnum tapped his fingertips together, took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Again I hoped he was going to forget the whole thing, and again he disappointed me. When he finally spoke, his voice was somehow different — strong and even, as though only at that moment was he fully committed and prepared to live with his decision.
"Dr. Smathers brought an associate with him — Dr. Chiang Kee," the Chancellor said quietly but firmly. "Kee, in turn, brought an assistant with him, also Chinese. I'm not sure Kee's assistant can even speak English. Quite frankly, the man just doesn't look like someone with a university background."
It was my turn to shrug. "Neither do I."
Barnum's gray eyes flashed. "I assume that's meant to chastise me for almost saying you're handicapped."
"No, sir," I said evenly. "I'm saying that you, better than anyone else, should know that you get some pretty strange types on a university faculty, most of them thoroughly qualified for the work they're doing. I'm just trying to save you — or the university — some money."
Barnum cleared his throat. "Uh, how much do you charge?"
"A hundred twenty a day, plus expenses. But you haven't spent a cent yet. I like working at the university, and I get along. I'm sure you understand that I'd have to believe there was very good cause before I started nosing into the affairs of a colleague. It has something to do with academic freedom." I leaned forward and folded my hands on the desk. "You still don't want to tell me about the rumors?"
He shook his head. Relieved, I started to get up.
"Do you know Mr. Haley in the English Department?" Barnum asked quickly.
I said I did, reluctantly sat back down. Fred Haley and I had shared a few beers.
"Mr. Haley tells me he's seen Dr. Kee before, in Korea," Barnum continued. "As you may know, Mr. Haley was a POW. He tells me that Kee — who was using a different name then — was an enemy interrogator in charge of the brainwashing program to which all the POWs were subjected. Apparently, this Kee had a reputation for brutality — psychological as well as physical."
I was impressed. Fred Haley wasn't a man given to wild accusations: at least, he was no more paranoid than anyone else who has to live and work in New York City. On the other hand, as a former POW he'd have a very special ax to grind.
"It wouldn't be the first time a former enemy had come to work in the United States," I said. "Where would we have been without Wernher Von Braun? Kee could have changed his name to keep people from rattling the skeletons in his closet. Smathers certainly must know the background of his own associate. It's possible that everything's on the level."
"I'm fully aware of that," the Chancellor said, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. He crossed his legs quickly, nervously, then uncrossed them. "As I said, I'm concerned with appearances. There's also the matter of the one-hundredthousand-dollar yearly endowment Dr. Smathers receives for the academic chair he holds. That represents the entire budget for his department, including salaries. While it's true that a man of Dr. Smathers' proved administrative abilities is not normally expected to —"
"You think Smathers is embezzling funds?"
"On the contrary," Barnum said wryly. "It's more likely he's printing money; that's the only way I could explain the equipment deliveries and remodeling that are going on over at Marten Hall."
"Doesn't the university audit Smathers' departmental budget?"
"Of course. But the audit covers only the money that the university provides directly, and the department budget is broken down into very broad categories. Frankly, our audit simply shows that Dr. Smathers is a very careful budgeter. Still, I wonder ..." He paused and scratched his head, sighed. "It's hard to criticize an administrator for providing more within his budget than he would seem capable of. But I'm convinced he has additional sources of funds, and I'm curious as to where the extra money is coming from."
"What's he working on over there?"
"Frankly, I don't know; and I probably wouldn't understand it if I did know. Under the terms of his contract, he teaches one graduate seminar — which he's been doing brilliantly — and he has an absolutely free hand in research."
"Why don't you just go over and see for yourself what he's up to?"
"Because it would look irregular. Obviously, one doesn't risk stepping on the toes of a Nobel Prize winner." He licked his lips, and his gray eyes seemed to grow darker, more intense. "Look, Dr. Frederickson; I wouldn't even care about these financial matters if it weren't for Dr. Kee's rather questionable background, and the ..."
"The rumors you won't tell me about," I finished for him.
"Correct," Barnum said with a quick nod.
I picked up my pencils and began tapping out a rhythm; it wasn't right, and I put the pencils aside again. "Where did Smathers come from?"
"Harvard takes good care of its prizewinners, to say the least. It's hard for me to believe they wouldn't have matched any offer that was made to him. Why do you suppose they let him get away?"
Barnum's reply was a prolonged, eloquent silence. Rumors.
"What did he win his Nobel Prize for?"
"He did pioneering work in sensory deprivation. It seems Dr. Smathers is a leading authority in the field."
"Sensory deprivation," I said tentatively. "That would be artificially taking away a man's senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste?"
"I believe that's correct."
"To what purpose?"
"Apparently none, except to simply find out what happens. The first experiments were conducted to determine the effects. NASA was interested for a time because of the sensory deprivation that might be involved in interplanetary space travel. But they gave it up when it became evident that the experiments entailed too much risk for the volunteers; it seems you can actually induce psychosis." Barnum paused and drew himself up in his chair. "Well, Dr. Frederickson? Will you investigate Dr. Smathers for me?"
"I'll check out a few things and get back to you in a week or so."
"Thank you," he said, the curtness of his tone laced with relief. "You'll need a retainer."
I didn't want the job, didn't want the retainer; but I also didn't want to offend Barnum. The university had been good to me, and at the moment the Chancellor represented the university. I gave him a figure of two hundred and fifty dollars, then cut it in half when I saw he was writing out a personal check.
As soon as Barnum left I put the check in a drawer, picked up the phone and called a private investigator in Boston by the name of Winston Kellogg. I'd done some work — gratis — in New York for Kellogg on a few occasions, and it seemed a good time to cash in the IOU. I asked him to make some inquiries — nothing expensive — into Smathers' tenure at Harvard and let me know what he found out, if anything.
The phone rang while I was on my way out the door. I let it ring a few times, then went back and answered it. I was glad I had; it was Janet Monroe, a good friend. Janet was a nun, as well as a premier microbiologist. She was on indefinite leave from a small upstate Catholic college to develop special projects at the university.
"Mongo!" Janet breathed. "There you are. I've been trying all morning to reach you here at the school. I thought I might have to resort to prayer." It was one of her standard jokes, but now her voice had an odd ring to it. She sounded tense and breathless, as though she'd run a long distance.
"What's the matter, Janet?"
"Are you free around one this afternoon?"
I glanced at my watch; it was eleven. I was hoping to have a few words with Vincent Smathers, and maybe even wangle a tour of his facilities. It was a chore I wanted to get out of the way. "For you, dear Sister, I'm free anytime. But can we make it one thirty?"
"One thirty will be fine," Janet said quickly. "We need to talk to someone we can trust."
"Yes. There's someone I'd like you to speak with, if you will. Unfortunately, he's on a very tight schedule."
"Who is it, Janet?"
There was a short pause. Then: "I'd — rather you find out for yourself. Can we meet in my office?"
"Sure, Janet. See you later."
"Thank you, Mongo. You're a dear, dear friend." There was a plaintive note in her voice that was uncharacteristic of the strong, vivacious woman, and it made me uneasy.
After hanging up the phone I started out the door again, then hesitated and went back to my desk. I sat down and deliberately tapped and hummed my way through the remaining measures of the third movement. When I'd finished, I rolled up the pencils in the score and put it in the bottom of a filing cabinet. I hoped I was wrong, but I had a strong feeling it would be some time before I got to the fourth movement.
I picked up a hot dog and soda from a Sabrett vendor and ate in the car on my way downtown to the university. I parked in my usual spot and headed across campus toward Marten Hall, an old building which housed the Psychology Department. It was hot and muggy, close to rain. It would be a good afternoon to nap, or lounge around in a dark piano bar listening to music with a woman. I'd spend the afternoon snooping. I wished Smathers had taken the summer off; I wished I'd taken the summer off.
It soon became obvious that one didn't simply wander in off the campus and strike up a conversation with a Nobel Prize winner — at least, not with this particular specimen. Smathers had a ground-floor office, and his first line of defense was a large, hawk-faced woman who looked as if she'd barely escaped the last pro-football draft.
Excerpted from "Affair of Sorcerers"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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.
Table of Contents