Start with an unlucky number. Throw in a romantic location. Include a dashing Frenchman and an uncompromising professor. And you have all the ingredients for a passport to murder. This semester, it seems that Professor Prather's dreams are about to come true. Ever since she was a young girl, she's imagined going to France, and her French colleague, Andre Duman, has finally made that trip possible. Over spring break, she and Andre are to lead a group of students and faculty to Paris to explore the City of Light. But before she can utter her first bonjour, a professor dies, and they are stuck in Minneapolis. She returns to Copper Bluff with an unstamped passport and a mystery to solve. When Andre becomes the prime suspect, Emmeline puts her research skills to good use, determined to find out who really killed the professor and spoiled their spring break plans. With thirteen travelers assembled, the possibilities are varied and villainous. Luckily, her dear friend and sidekick, Lenny Jenkins, is close by. Together, they will sort through the conflicting clues even if it costs them time, trouble, or tenure. Book 2 in the Professor Prather Mystery series.
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Spring was cause enough for celebration on the Great Plains, let alone a trip to Paris. When the first green shoots of crocuses pushed their way through the melting mounds of snow, people packed away their fur-lined parkas and donned sweatshirts and hoodies, taking to the fresh air like inmates on furlough. It didn't matter if the day was cold, gray, or windy; the parkas would not return. To bring them back out of storage would only contradict a day on the calendar that would be kept come hell, high water — or the inevitable spring snowstorm.
But snow was nowhere in sight today. It was a bright blue Friday morning I could only describe as cornflower, and I dismissed my stocking cap and gloves with a flick of my wrist. After they tumbled across my porch table and onto the floor with a soft thud, my calico cat, Dickinson, immediately seized them for investigation. Her claws were making short work of the stitching on my hat when I closed the front door, but I didn't bother to stop her. If she turned it into a great ball of yarn, I would be only too happy to roll it in catnip for her and consider it recycled. The winter had been that bad.
It was early morning, and the air was frosty, yet a promise of warmth lingered in the doorway. I stood for a moment on my steps and inhaled deeply. Then I was off down the street, smiling and thinking of Mrs. Dalloway.
"What a lark! What a plunge!" I exclaimed.
"Good morning, Emmeline," said Mrs. Gunderson, my next-door neighbor. Her voice gave me such a start that one of my tan flats skidded out in front of me, setting off a cramp in my calf. When I grew weary of my episodes of insomnia, I reminded myself of Mrs. Gunderson. If she slept, I didn't know when. Although she was in her seventies, it wasn't beyond her to shovel the walkway at five thirty in the morning. If one was up, one might as well get something done.
"Mrs. Gunderson, I didn't see you there. Is it planting time already?" Mrs. Gunderson stepped away from the bushes under her front window. Her white hair was arranged in neat, uniform rolls that covered her entire head, and her pink lipstick shone brightly against her powdered face. This was the other remarkable thing about Mrs. Gunderson: she was more put together than someone half her age — mainly me. "Oh heavens no, dear. It's only mid-March. My bulbs need a little help, that's all. What with this winter, it's a miracle they're alive."
I shook off my leg cramp. "It was one for the books. That's for certain."
For five months, the snow had buried the small town of Copper Bluff, South Dakota, in great piles that sat at the edges of parking lots, growing muddier and murkier with each passing day. During the entire month of January, the temperature never rose above zero, bringing activity in the town to a near stop. The first day of bad weather, the university canceled classes. The second day, too. But on the third day, classes resumed, and students resorted to wearing ski masks and mittens and all the things mothers bundle their elementary children with. In a way, January had humbled us all.
By now the sun had melted away most of the snow, and there was talk of flowers — and spring break. A smile spread across my face, and I knew I had to keep moving if I were to avoid questions by my nosy neighbor.
"Have a good day," I called to Mrs. Gunderson as I continued walking toward campus, my spring coat swinging back and forth at my hips.
"You too, dear," she replied, watching me leave.
Being an English professor, I usually stayed home during spring break, using the time to catch up on grading papers. But this year, I was scheduled to go to France with a group of students and André Duman. My smile grew wider at the thought of it. It wasn't exactly "April in Paris," like the old tune sung by Billie Holiday, but it was close enough.
André was a French professor who had gone to great lengths to apply for a grant to travel abroad to his native country. While the seven-day trip would cost each participant $2,150, due the first of January, the costs for two professors would be compensated by the grant. The price might seem steep to a college student, until you considered that it included transportation, hotel, two dinners, lecture fees, and event tickets in one of the most expensive cities in the world. André had also managed to obtain discounted Paris museum passes for the students and arranged for a group tour of his beloved Sorbonne University. As the only other professor fluent in French, I was the natural choice to accompany him and the students. He was the faculty coordinator, and I was assistant coordinator. We were to leave tomorrow from Minneapolis, which had the closest international airport, and I was over-the-moon excited.
Ever since I was a young child, I had wanted to travel to France. My great-great-grandmother had been born and raised in St. Emilion, and although I knew little about my ancestor (except that we shared a name, Emmeline) and even less about St. Emilion, I imagined I would feel an immediate connection the moment I stepped on French soil. My father blamed my romanticism on my mother. She, after all, had named me. If I'd had a good, sturdy name like Mary, he said, I would have stayed in Detroit, my hometown, and become a nice high school teacher like my mother. I disagreed with him completely. First of all, high school had comprised the worst years of my life, and second, Detroit was a tough town to get lost in. The city streets always reminded me where I was. From an early age, they instilled in me a reality from which no amount of fiction could ever help me escape for long.
But Copper Bluff was as easy to disappear in as a big fluffy cloud. There wasn't much in town except the university campus and a handful of stores, and I could wander among those without bumping up against any of the predicaments that plagued other cities. Open-minded people with ideas congregated here. It was a safe haven for intellectuals and other dreamers, and the townspeople revered their city not for its smallness but for its autonomy. It was as distinct in its differences as other towns in their sameness.
As I crossed the street to the campus, I focused on my morning class, creative writing. The only reason I was teaching it this semester was because Claudia Swift was on sabbatical. She and her husband, Gene, were on a couples' cruise in Italy. If all went as planned, their yearlong standoff would end and their marriage vows would be renewed. I couldn't wait to hear about the trip. She was a terrific storyteller and one of my closest friends.
"Well you're looking chipper today, Emmeline," said Jane Lemort, our medievalist scholar, as she joined me on the walking path. She was wearing a long black skirt and a dark wool coat and looked like an inky splotch against the cornflower day.
"It must be the weather," I said. "It's nice to see the sun, isn't it?" She was keeping pace with me now. "I thought it might be that trip to Paris tomorrow that has you grinning like the Cheshire Cat."
"Am I grinning like the Cheshire Cat? How unflattering," I said with a laugh.
"Em Prather," a deep voice behind us said, "You are the picture of spring in that blue coat."
I turned to face Lenny Jenkins, our American literature scholar, who had come up behind us unannounced. He was six feet tall, and standing next to my petite frame, quite imposing. "Good morning, Lenny. Jane and I were just debating the appeal of the Cheshire Cat."
Still pulling himself together, Lenny was buttoning a dark-gray barn jacket. "Personally, I like the Cheshire Cat. In fact, I am kind of a cat person in general, fictional cats included."
Jane said, "Emmeline is leaving for Paris tomorrow, and she can't stop smiling."
"Who could blame her?" said Lenny. He adjusted his leather messenger bag diagonally across his broad chest. "Have you seen the guy she's going with? Tall, dark, and handsome."
"My excitement is purely due to the academic possibilities of the trip, I assure you," I replied offhandedly.
Lenny came to an abrupt stop. "And Mr. Red, Red Wine?" Jane stopped, too. They were both looking at me skeptically.
I gave in to my good mood. "Well, his looks are somewhat intoxicating, if you're into that sort of thing."
Lenny shook his head and resumed walking. "What red-blooded American isn't into old-fashioned inebriation?"
Jane sniffed indignantly. "I'm sure I speak for plenty of women on this campus when I say that I, for one, am not inebriated by Mr. Duman's good looks. Appearance is such a superficial criterion to base a relationship on. Wouldn't you agree, Emmeline?"
"I would agree," I said. "However, it might suffice for a one-night stand."
Jane stared at me, open mouthed.
"I'm just kidding," I said.
Lenny gave me a little nudge, and we walked the rest of the way to Harriman Hall in playful silence.
Harriman Hall was an old, plain-brick building that didn't have much to recommend it. It housed the English and Criminal Justice Departments as well as five or six classrooms in the basement. Yet the building was set back from the rest of the campus, further obscured by two terrific maple trees that guarded the entrance like sentinels. I relished the anonymity of it and the quiet beauty too. I didn't mind that it wasn't as regal as Winsor or as stately as Stanton Hall. It was where I belonged — somewhere in the middle, somewhere in between.
My feelings probably had something to do with my academic meanderings. My specialty was French literature, but as we had no French Department or major, there was little need for a French literature professor. So I taught writing and literature classes for the English Department and helped edit the Copper Bluff Review, a small onsite literary journal. I hoped that working on the journal would aid me when I applied for associate professor in four years. My pre-tenure review was next fall, and I wanted to show I was on track.
My academic compromise might have been intolerable to some faculty looking for the highest accolades and worthiest publications, but I couldn't say that it bothered me. In fact, I couldn't imagine teaching anywhere except Copper Bluff. With its soft, rolling hills just starting to turn green, smell of dry dirt being prepared for planting, and flat, unending horizon, Copper Bluff had found a convert in me.
The three of us walked up the stairwell of Harriman Hall in single file to the second floor. Jane turned left at the top of the stairs.
"See you later," she called behind her.
Stopping at Lenny's door, Lenny and I looked at each other in surprise.
"Yes, goodbye," I managed to call out after her.
Lenny took out his keys. "She's talkative today."
"I know," I said. "This nice weather has everyone acting out of character."
I followed him into his office. Tossing his coat on the chair, he said, "Let me guess why you're at my office and not yours. One, you gained too much weight over the holidays and can't squeeze into that closet of an office down the hall, or two, you're out of change for the coffee fund." Though most every business in the entire United States provided free coffee for employees, the university did not. Barb, our secretary, forced us to plunk a quarter in the coffee fund for every cup. There was talk this semester of the rate going up to fifty cents.
I sat down in the facing chair, smoothing my blue spring jacket. Really, it was more of a periwinkle. "Just one cup. I have to teach at nine."
He was already fiddling with a coffee filter. "Fine. But you're not going to fill up that damn to-go mug."
"Of course not," I said. "When have you ever known me to overindulge?" He turned to look at me, despite the fact that he was filling the coffeemaker with a gallon of purified water. Although he had many fine features, such as streaky blond hair and a solid jawline, his dimple was his finest, and now it showed deep in his left cheek. His good looks, similar age, and lively conversation might have made us more than just friends, but our dismal dating records had left us cautious. For now, we both remained stubbornly single.
"Last Friday at O'Malley's ring a bell?"
"That. Well. When do they ever have a special on Jameson?" I said, unbuttoning my coat.
He flipped the switch on the coffeemaker. "Every other week. It's an Irish pub."
"I only had two drinks. We had a good time, though, didn't we?" I recalled the local rock band and their insistence that Lenny join them on stage. "You really are an excellent guitarist."
Lenny was the kind of American literature teacher every undergrad wished for. He was easygoing, passed all his students, and played electric guitar. He performed at many local events, the legion, and even the faculty Christmas party. My first year on campus, I drank too much red wine at the holiday bash and joined in on the vocals to his rendition of the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown." Thankfully, I didn't repeat my performance last Christmas. My second year on campus had taught me a thing or two.
He sat down in his old wooden office chair. "Joke all you want, but you're not the only one with plans this spring break. I'm opening for a band in Minneapolis this weekend at First Avenue."
I sat up straighter. "The Prince bar?"
"That'd be the one. Some amazing tribute bands have played there since his death."
"That is terrific, Lenny. You're like a ... a professional."
He was pleased by my compliment. "Well I'm from Minneapolis, you know. I still have a few connections up there."
"What night do you play?"
I frowned. "You'll be missing a fan, I'm afraid. I'll be halfway to Paris by then."
He leaned back so far in his chair I thought it would tip, but instead it just squeaked and moaned. "So I've heard. How did André come up with enough students, anyway? I thought you had to have twelve for the trip."
"We did. We do," I said, watching the carafe slowly fill with coffee. "We have thirteen now, including faculty members." With the recent violence and unrest in Europe, terrorism was much more of a concern with parents than we'd anticipated. Not all the students were allowed to travel abroad. In fact, only six students from André's classes signed up. Luckily, several faculty members showed interest from the start, so now we had more than enough.
"Thirteen?" he asked, raising one dark eyebrow, which contrasted handsomely with his spiky blond hair. "I know how you feel about that number."
According to one of the superstitions surrounding the number, if thirteen sat down to eat, the first one to leave the table would die within the year. Myth or not, the historic Savoy Hotel in London strictly avoided tables of thirteen, providing a fourteenth place setting with a small black porcelain cat named Kaspar as its occupant. It became the hotel's practice after an incident in 1898 where a party of fourteen became a party of thirteen after one of the guests didn't show up. Woolf Joel, a diamond mogul and the host of the party, scoffed the superstition and left the table first. Two weeks later, he was shot. Lenny knew this story, so I didn't bother to remind him.
I folded my hands across my lap. "It's certainly not ideal. But the superstition applies to dinner, not trips abroad." I had been repeating this salve to myself ever since André told me about the new arrangements, but being superstitious by nature, I still had a hard time convincing myself nothing bad would happen. Maybe it was my long-lost French heritage. After all, I had come across several instances of French superstition in my research. Perhaps I had inherited it from my great-great-grandma Emmeline. Wherever it came from, even nine years of book learning couldn't reverse it.
"I know you, Prather. Don't tell me you haven't considered possible bad-luck scenarios? You've read too many mystery novels not to."
I shrugged. "Some of the professors wouldn't be my first choice in traveling companions, but I'd never wish anyone harm." I shuddered, recalling my run-in with murder last fall. "I just hope Arnold Frasier, the chair of the Art Department, stays safe. I want him to be my guide at the Louvre."
"This just gets better all the time, doesn't it?"
"I can barely endure art majors while I'm on the clock — let alone off."
"Well," I said, "he's not exactly an art major; he's an art professor. And hopefully he will be so busy with other artists' work, he won't bother me about his own." Artists could be more pretentious than writers, and that was saying something. I could think of several examples in the English Department.
Excerpted from "Passport to Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Mary Angela.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc..
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