John Paul Davis, a wealthy computer executive and alum of the university, returns for the wedding of a favorite professor’s daughter. At the wedding reception, he renews his friendship with a beautiful postdoc, Rachel Howard, and meets an old enemy, Professor Dewit, who extends an insulting invitation for dinner at his home the next evening. Rachel confides in John Paul about some missing lab notes.
John Paul pumps aristocratic Chloe Manning, the owner of the bed and breakfast where he is staying, about Dewit and wife, Marie. Davis hears Marie had a lover, a young Midwestern boy. Inadvertently, Davis finds evidence that Chloe Manning was a member of La Fleur Noir, a secret French group of which Davis was once a member.
At the dinner, Davis and Howard meet Dewit’s wife, Marie; Jim Harrington, a federal funding agent; Tom Walkins, who is up for promotion; Arthur Lewis and his wife, Evelyn; and Dean Brent Parker, who is up for the post of president, and his wife, Gina. Sparks fly between all the guests. When Dewit explains his new research plans, Rachel, flushed and angry, accuses him of plagiarism and threatens him. The next morning, the Dewits are found dead—poisoned.
John Paul Davis finds himself in a dilemma. Who killed the Dewits—one of the professors, the postdoc Rachael Howard, or perhaps a student? Davis calls for help from his old mentor, Richard Moore, who is presently in China; the intriguing Chloe Manning; and the local police. But ultimately, Davis has to solve the murder in order to save his own life.
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Murder at the University
By C. B. Murray
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Clella Murray
All rights reserved.
"Do you always admire silver candelabra for fifteen minutes or do you plan to steal the blasted things?" John Paul Davis' deep, soft voice carried subtle amusement. "I've been watching you for the last quarter hour you know."
He looked across the hors d'oeuvres table at a tall, lithe girl. The sunlight, that flashed the crystal, fondled the woman's black hair, made the thick locks glisten. Her eyes were lost in thoughts far away. The short skirt of her silk dress exposed a tempting flash of leg. She was as he remembered her.
Startled, Rachel Howard looked up from the candelabra on the center of the table and into the eyes of the tall man opposite her. Her face brightened, "John Paul," she said with sincere delight.
John Paul Davis squared muscular shoulders and snapped to attention, his French ancestry visible in his features and rather haughty bearing. "Who else do you know who hovers over food while eyeing the lovely bridesmaids?" Davis questioned.
With the grace and power of a fencer, he rounded the table and lifted Rachel up in the air and hugged her. "Thank heaven you're not the one joining the marrying group."
"Good grief, put me down!" She looked around embarrassed. The faculty club, a brick, colonial home of a past president was the perfect place for a wedding reception, but both the house and the guests were rather staid. The afternoon sun caressed old sterling, Irish crystal, and English china. The former living room, with its fine walnut paneling and red silk damask wing chairs, had hosted traditional pre-dinner gatherings for over a century. Many of the guests appeared to have been around for the same length of time attending the parties. Polite conversation ceased, sideways glances and shocked looks were shielded, and finally the low hum of talk began again.
Rachel looked up into his face and then away immediately, strangely breathless. "But you're so different! Where are the grubby jeans, moustaches, and sandals? What happened to the graduate student who was going to win the Nobel prize before he hit thirty, if it didn't interfere with a few nights lost on wine and women?"
John looked at Dr. Rachael, and studied the huge cat eyes and oval face. He inquired in a surprised voice, "Good Lord, was that me?"
"Right! You were not bad, not really, just arrogant, uncaring, irresponsible, intelligent, bad tempered, good at chess." She laughed. He certainly had changed into a distinguished, impeccably tailored, visibly successful man, but the eyes were the same, burning and intense.
"So, Miss Rachel, you can still deflate! What are you doing now with that glorious body and intimidating mind?"
"I was hoping you would come to the reception after the wedding! I saw you at the church."
"Wouldn't have missed it," he looked steadily at the slender, graceful young woman, "or seeing you," he added gallantly. "So here you are, a brand new post-doc. How does it feel to have a PhD and the world plying you with job offers?"
She smiled, "So far I've not been overwhelmed with interviews. I've sent off lots of applications, but the job market is tight right now, the woods are full of hopeful new graduates and even, in good times, positions teaching or researching genetics are few."
"Surely your advisor can help you." His voice sounded sympathetic. Rachel lowered troubled eyes and in a hurried whisper, she confided. "Dr. Braun had a stroke last semester, perhaps you didn't know. For the time being, I have a position as a post-doc with Dr. Dewit." She looked over her shoulder and laughed nervously, "As a matter of fact, I'm glad you're here, I really need to talk to a friend ..."
"Come on, Racee, not at a wedding! Where's your sense of the romantic, the exciting, the appetite? I'm starved! I want to know the guys you are seeing, how serious you are, and what my chances are with you and maybe dinner in that order."
"Oh, there you are, John Paul. Anita told me you were over here. I did want especially to see you and thank you personally for the lovely antique silver tea set, Georgian, I believe, right?" The mother of the bride didn't pause for an answer, but smiled to herself at the subtle way she had let the world know she was not unfamiliar with antiques and their periods. "Naturally Anita will write, after the honeymoon, of course," she laughed in what she hoped was a knowing, woman-of-the-world way. "Really, I mean we were so impressed and oh, so surprised. Your generosity overwhelmed us." She paused short of saying how expensive it must have been. "I had to tell you myself how much we appreciated your lovely, lovely gift!"
Mrs. Hammer stopped for air, but her heaving, ample bosom showed the strain of her breathless statement and the haste she exerted to deliver it. A short woman with light brown hair, graying at the temples, she was fighting the stereotype of middle age and losing the battle. She felt her mother-of-the-bride lace dress would do nicely for cocktail parties later on, "so practical you know." The dress would perhaps serve better stored for a few years. The fact that the slip was a few inches too long wouldn't matter in a casket.
"I'm so glad you and Anita liked the set. I feel indebted to Dr. Hammer for all the help he gave me as a struggling graduate student." His face was a careful and correct mask. Large or small, motherly women discomforted John Paul.
"Where are you staying? Here in town?"
"I'm staying with Mrs. Manning."
"Oh, yes," Emily Hammer turned to Rachel, "Chloe Manning is the widow of Tyrus Walton Manning, distinguished professor he was. Everyone in town supposes she receives paying guests for their company. She has that large, brick nineteenth century mansion on the edge of the campus. Lord knows, she doesn't need the money." She turned back to John Paul.
"Do have some hors d'oeuvres, eat lots and lots of them." Mrs. Hammer was intent on showing her gratitude. For a moment John Paul feared she might stuff one down his throat, but she added, "I must run and check the wine glasses with the caterer. Lost them you know- the wine glasses that is, not the caterer- on the truck for another function." With this rather confused announcement, she raised her head and added, "I'll see you in a few minutes at dinner." She really didn't want to leave the handsome, young man with the wicked brown eyes, but when duty called, Emily Hammer answered. She squared her jaw and departed to pursue the wine glasses or caterer, or both.
"You sent that gorgeous Georgian tea service?" It was more an accusation than a question. "Good Lord, computer companies must be doing well!" Secretly, Rachel was remembering the rumor of the Davis family's extensive wealth. She studied the poised face, smooth, hard, tanned. He must be what, now, about thirty plus. When she was a freshman he was a teaching assistant, a TA, finishing up his Ph.D.
As if he hadn't heard her, John Paul turned back to Rachel and with a dazzling smile he asked, "You were saying you needed to talk to a friend? Please let it not be something serious but rather personal? Juicy even?"
"I know this isn't the place, but a situation has come up ... I mean, I'm in the middle of a puzzle and if we could talk sometime, I'd really appreciate your counsel." Rachel finished with a gulp so uncharacteristic of her usual confident self, John Paul felt intrigued and half-turned to study her earnest but averted face.
"Of course I'll be glad to listen and if I can be of help ..." then with a mischievous twinkle and a grin, "I understand as a woman you would appreciate a man's more experienced and comprehending judgement."
As he knew the effect would be, Rachel's head shot up and her back stiffened. "I can't believe you said that! This is not funny." She turned from him at the exact moment Dr. Dewit approached them.
John Paul's face froze. Dr. Dewit, a wiry man of medium height with a slightly affected European accent, epitomized all the self-righteous, judgmental mentality that John abhorred. In spite of himself, John Paul laughed at Dewit's manner of pulling on his long, narrow fingers and hopping on first one foot and then the other during a conversation as if his pants were too tight in the crotch. For this reason, many of the grad students called him "the Hopper."
With the familiar, ingratiating yet superior grin, Dr. Roger Dewit extended a hairy, calloused hand. The parties on both sides of the handshake were icy, polite, unfriendly, each leaning as far as possible away from the clasped hands. "Well, well, if it isn't John. Emily Hammer has been awing me with the excessive value of your ostentatious tea service. Does it give you satisfaction to flaunt the economic rewards of the commercial sector over your academic peers who remained true to pure research?"
Rachel drew in her breath sharply. Dewit was known for his brusque directness, but this was intentional rudeness. He must have harbored a long-time anger and perhaps jealously.
John Paul relaxed and with an easy smile drawled, "Perhaps it will encourage my overworked and underpaid colleagues to do their research where it is appreciated," his smile broadened and he paused, measuring Dewit from head to toe, and then purred, "before they are too old to be in demand."
The barb hit home. Dewit stopped his hopping and glared with pure hatred. "And how is your mentor, the sainted Richard Moore? I haven't seen him around campus lately" The fact that Dewit had dropped his accent bespoke more than a polite inquiry. He knew very well where Moore was. In fact, he kept careful track of Moore's every move.
John Paul's jaw twitched, he smiled but the smile never reached his eyes. "Dr. Moore is in China at the request of the Chinese government to consult on both a physics curriculum at Beijing University and on a problem in the government sponsored research program." Not waiting for a comment he changed the subject swiftly. "I haven't seen your wife, Marie isn't it? Is she here?"
Everyone knew that Moore had come to the University a short time after Dewit and because of their more or less simultaneous arrival, they were often considered for promotion and tenure at approximately the same time. For Dewit, a certain competitiveness had developed, he kept track of all Moore's papers, grants and committee appointments. He had become obsessed. Whenever Dewit attained a goal after strenuous, backbreaking attempts, he was infuriated to see Moore effortlessly do him one better. Dewit was additionally maddened to realize that Moore was oblivious to the competition. As if Dewit were not worth equal status as an adversary. As Moore's star student, John Paul had inherited Dewit's rancor.
Dewit clenched and unclenched his hands several times and with great effort, answered in an almost normal voice, "With having guests for dinner tomorrow night, Marie had to stay home and cope with the preparation." He shrugged as if that were her duty and her presence were inconsequential.
Then Dewit brightened, "As a matter of fact, the dinner is for Jim Harrington from Washington, an old buddy of mine." He smiled at Rachel as if they shared a secret. "He's coming down to look into a new proposal I've submitted. "Why don't you come over for dinner, Rachel, and bring John Paul here, if he can stand plebeian food. Marie always cooks too much. We're having a lot of people from the department and University. You'll know them all. Around 6 pm?"
Dewit left, smiling at Rachel and barely nodding at John Paul. Rachel looked up. "I don't know what in the world made him act that way. I mean he was inexcusably rude and then asking you for dinner, left-handed like. I'll be so glad when I finish up my stint with him."
Before the bell sounded for dinner, John Paul said "Excuse me a moment." He walked over to the maitre-d. For a few moments they spoke. Rachel couldn't hear them, but she saw John Paul hand something to the waiter who nodded eagerly with a broad smile.
When John Paul returned to her he was smiling, too. "I looked at the seating chart before I came in and you are in luck, table thirteen. I spoke to Girard and he promised to scurry around and change my seat to your table. Hope you don't mind? We're way back in the corner. For a few extra bills, he will find other places for our would-be dinner companions, so I have you all to myself. I do so hate sitting at table for hours with people I don't know and generally don't ever want to see again." He held his hand out to her. His tone was so perfectly natural and confident, Rachel couldn't help laughing. Poor Emily Hammer, all those hours pouring over a seating chart for naught. Rachel would have bet that the wealthy and successful bachelor would have been seated next to the Hammer's youngest daughter.
Rachel took the outstretched hand. "OK, I'll see you eat, but I really need to talk to someone, John Paul, I may have bitten off more than I can chew in this research, and an unkind God has sent me you."
"You want to woo me with sweet talk? Unkind God, my foot! You always were crazy about me, you and every other freshman girl. Why not just admit it?"
"Still modest, I see," she smiled at him.
The table was indeed in a corner, even behind a half-closed French door. Two extra chairs had been discreetly turned back, as if they were being saved for some late friends. A starched linen cloth shrouded the table.
A glass bowl reflected the candle light. Early spring flowers brought the fragrance of the outside indoors.
The faculty club was a lovely setting, indeed most faculty daughters preferred it for their parties to the larger, local restaurants with a more contrived period ambience. The weathered brick, carved paneling and deep oriental carpets, the polished serving tables, crisp linens bespoke a peace, elegance and serenity of a bygone era, a sense of tradition.
Rachel noticed John took a seat with his back to the wall and face to the door. She remembered that he always positioned himself, thus. Once when a friend had kidded him about the habit, he had said it was his old spy training. Everyone laughed, but Rachel was struck that John had turned aside and hadn't laughed.
When they were seated, she studied him. Small bitter lines circled his lips. The bitterness was new. She wondered what the lines were from: hurt, hatred, nostalgia, fear?
"Let's get one thing straight. No more John Paul. John, even, God forbid, JP. Please not Johnnie!" Rachel was surprised at his sudden seriousness.
"Ok, John. Feel better? And no more Racee, ok?"
"No, a truce signifies war, and we haven't fought ... yet."
"Anything you say."
Rachel tried not to focus on the hard lines. "So, what are you doing now, what computer and what language? I always thought you would go on in physics and not be seduced to being a hack."
"You put it so quaintly. What makes you think I'm a hack?"
"I can't believe you are legitimately making enough money to indulge your whims."
John threw back his head and laughed. "My whims, as you so naively call them, are necessities to those who are not ascetics! Can we call a truce? Oops, I mean have a friendly chat while we eat?"
John Paul tasted the wine, frowned and motioned an attentive Girard to the table. They conferred in hushed tones. Before Rachel could stop him, he had ordered another wine.
"I can't believe you did that! You have to be the most arrogant, rude, ill-mannered person I've ever known. The Hammers can't afford for their guests to make side orders. Your poor mother, where has she failed, "she wailed theatrically. Her tone was reproachful but her eyes laughed at his audacity.
John Paul smiled charmingly. "Yes, I am all of the above. Rachel, don't be silly. If I'm willing to pay for my own wine, and of course I will, why should I, out of some antique etiquette, be poisoned by a cheap vinegar? Look at Girard, he certainly doesn't mind. After tonight, he can send his youngest child through college." Then he added in a mock serious tone, "Don't worry, my dear, no one will ever know. I've been very discreet."
Rachel couldn't help but smile, in fact when Girard approached in a conspiratorial attitude with a napkin over the label, she felt a ridiculous urge to giggle.
"And now, what is this situation, this puzzle?" For all his amused tone, John Paul's gaze was attentive, even serious. Rachel saw the warmth and caring in his truly remarkable brown eyes and felt at ease. "What's a nice girl like you all worked up about?"
His tone was mocking and facetious but the solemnity of his concern was flattering at least at first, then the intensity was frightening. She had forgotten the brain that lurked behind the casual glance, the potential Rhodes scholar who had refused the honor.
Excerpted from Murder at the University by C. B. Murray. Copyright © 2016 Clella Murray. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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