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It was a bad day to find a corpse on campus.
Preston Barclay is a self-made recluse (and he likes it that way). Teaching college history allows him time to grieve the loss of his pianist wife and find relief from the musical hallucinations that have been playing in his head since her death.
But when he and headstrong colleague, Mara Thorn, discover the body of another instructor on campus, Press's monotonous solitude is shaken up. The preliminary evidence points to Press and Mara. Now they must take some chances, including trusting each other (and bending the rules) to build their own defense. While they form an unlikely alliance to stay ahead of the police, the college's administration accuses the pair of trying to get away with murder.
Now both might end up unemployed, behind bars, or worse . . .
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Rhapsody in Red
By Donn Taylor, Michele Straubel
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2008 Donn Taylor
All rights reserved.
That Wednesday two weeks before Thanksgiving was a bad day to find a corpse on campus. It was already bad when Professor Mara Thorn came to ask my help.
She did not know, but she found me battling the incessant music in my head and grieving for past Wednesdays when Faith was alive. That had become my Wednesday ritual: close the door of my office in the history department at five o'clock, return to my desk, and linger alone in memories of my wife while darkness brought in the chill of Midwestern evening. I would put off as long as I could my return to the home where Faith and I had raised our daughter, for that house with its silent piano now formed the center of the world's vast emptiness.
That afternoon, the orchestra in my head was augmenting my grief with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings when someone knocked at my door. The office was dark, but through the door's frosted glass I saw a shadowy form against the dim lights of the hallway.
"Come in," I called.
The door opened and the dark form paused on the threshold.
"Professor Barclay?" The voice was feminine, hesitant.
"I'm Preston Barclay," I said. "The light switch is beside the door to your right."
The shadow's arm moved. Light flooded the office and revealed Professor Mara Thorn. I had never spoken with her, but I remembered her introduction last August at the year's first faculty meeting. She was perhaps thirty-five years old, slender, with a pleasing face and shoulder-length blonde hair. She wore no makeup, and her blue eyes held the faculty in a gaze that some described as earnest and others as defiant. I held with the latter view. It's said that eyes are the windows of the soul, but hers were the embrasures of a fortress.
Her expertise was comparative religions. And that raised the question why a nominally Christian institution like Overton University—the school we knew before The Crisis as Overton Grace College—would hire a Wiccan in its department of religious studies. Most faculty assumed she was part of the new administration's diversity program.
"Come in," I said again. My internal musicians shifted suddenly from the solemn Adagio into a series of hideous discords. Harmonious or dissonant, though, that music is all I have left now of Faith. It's not just a tune here and there, but constant, uncontrollable torrents of music inside my head. The clinical term is "musical hallucinations." Psychiatrists and neurologists don't know what causes them, but they say these hallucinations duplicate the ordinary function of listening to music—except that the hallucinated "sounds" don't come from outside, but are generated internally through a weird malfunction of the brain. The experts have their theories, but I live with the reality. This internal music makes my life like living in a movie that some insane editor has mismatched with the music score from another.
Professor Thorn began to close the door. "I've come to ask your help."
"Leave the door open," I said. "Come have a chair." I gestured toward a hardwood straight chair to the left of my desk.
She removed her winter jacket and hung it on the rack next to my overcoat. She wore a long-sleeved violet blouse, and her blue jeans showed none of the currently fashionable fading or fraying. Still hesitant, she kept her eyes on me as she settled into the chair. To ease her mind, I circled the right side of my desk and took a chair opposite her. I hoped my coat and tie wouldn't make her self-conscious about her jeans.
The open door and the width of the room between us were minimum precautions in these days when a careless word can get a male faculty member accused of sexual harassment. Music may bounce around in my head, but I don't have any loose screws.
Professor Thorn let the silence linger, broken only by a few clicks from the computer under my desk as it ran one of those automatic programs I've never understood. I thought she might have changed her mind, but then she spoke in a rush.
"Professor Barclay, I've come to you because everyone on campus respects you."
I adjusted my trifocals and tried not to look self-conscious. "A lot of people would disagree with that."
"They also say you're not afraid to take an unpopular stand."
... but that was in another country; / And besides, the wench is dead.
The quotation flitted across my mind, but I must have spoken aloud because she answered: "I've read Christopher Marlowe, too. Though that line may have been added later by Thomas Heywood."
Score one for her unexpected erudition.
She moistened her lips and turned that blue-steel gaze on me. "Do you know Laila Sloan?"
"I've talked with her a few times in groups over lunch."
I knew more than I was telling. Six years ago our administration added a nursing program to the school's offerings. Too many of its students failed the required chemistry course, so the nursing faculty and administration tried to drop it from the curriculum. It made no sense to me to graduate nurses ignorant of chemistry, and I led a faculty movement that defeated the curriculum change. So the administration took the course away from the chemistry department and brought in Laila Sloan from a high school across the state, inserting her in the nursing department to teach it. Suddenly, all the nursing students passed chemistry. That made the administration happy.
Except with me.
That's why I denied being courageous. We work on annual contracts here, with no provision for tenure. Teaching history is all the life I have left to me now, and I'd make a lousy used-car salesman. So ever since then I've been quiet as a church mouse with laryngitis.
"I have a problem with Laila." Professor Thorn looked down at the floor. "She has been friendly with me, more so than the rest of the faculty has." Her eyes lifted and speared me again with that blue gaze. "But lately she hasn't kept her hands to herself."
"She's an ... outgoing person," I said. "Maybe she doesn't mean any harm."
Laila was a large woman of about forty, strong and robust. Rumor said she'd been cautioned about "inappropriate touching" of female students, but apparently no one had accused her of an overt advance. And her value to the nursing department ensured that the administration would overlook quite a lot of questionable behavior on her part. They apparently see no contradiction between their laxity in her case and their Draconian approach toward even the appearance of impropriety among less-favored faculty.
Score one for institutional hypocrisy.
I confess I didn't want to get involved. For all I knew, this Wiccan professor might have invited the situation and then changed her mind.
Professor Thorn's lips tightened. "Laila still makes me uncomfortable."
"Then tell her positively to keep hands off," I said. "The campus gossip mill says you're into weight training and karate. You ought to be able to make it stick."
Her chin rose a fraction of an inch. "I've told her twice, and I've told her why." Professor Thorn looked like she didn't know whether to curse or cry. "In my teens I made a bad marriage to an older man. It took me three years to work up nerve enough to break out of it. By then I was sick of being touched in ways I didn't like. I swore I'd never let it happen again."
She glared at me as if daring me to come across the room and touch her. I noticed for the first time that she held a cell phone in her hand. This seemed like a good time to study one sleeve of my coat. The cuff had frayed, showing a pinhead-sized patch of white thread. A few strokes with a Sharpie would hide it, and I wouldn't have to buy a new suit.
"This afternoon," Professor Thorn continued, "Laila asked me to drive her to the post office to mail a package. I did, and we went through the same problem again. I told her again, and she threatened to complain about me to the administration. I'm new on faculty, and I can't afford complaints. I need this job."
"What does this have to do with me?" I asked.
I made a mistake then. I have a habit of walking back and forth while I'm thinking. A professor's folly, Faith used to call it. When I stood, Professor Thorn tensed and flicked the cell phone open. Her fingers lingered over its buttons while her gaze searched mine.
What was she going to do? Dial 9-1-1? I sat back down and made a show of adjusting my necktie. "I'm sorry if I startled you. Pacing is a bad habit."
"It's ... it's all right." She flushed slightly and closed the phone. "Will you go with me to talk to her? I can't go to the administration, and the women faculty members haven't exactly made me welcome."
I didn't want to go because it would mean a nasty scene with Laila Sloan. For obvious reasons, I'd always been persona non grata to her. Still, Professor Thorn's position as a new faculty member was precarious, and she did need a disinterested witness. I admit my conscience was bugging me because I had doubted her. She didn't act like the kind of person who would invite an advance. Indeed, she seemed the pathological opposite.
"All right," I said. "Will we find her at home or on campus?"
"At her office." Professor Thorn's tension eased a bit. "I dropped her there about an hour ago. She said she had papers to grade."
We stood, and I waited while she retrieved her coat. I didn't help her into it because that might involve touching. When she had it on and moved out into the hall, I sauntered over and collected my overcoat and hat.
Outside, trees and hedges bent before a gusty November wind off the plains. The beige globes on campus light posts sent nervous shadows skittering along the concrete walkways. Without warning, my mental music shifted from a Chopin nocturne into the frenetic finale of Beethoven's Appassionata.
We crossed the campus circle to what used to be called the chemistry building until the new administration renamed it the Center for the Natural Sciences. (Everything now is either a Center or a Service.) Without speaking, we climbed to the second floor, where the scent of floor wax surrendered to pungent odors from a chemistry lab down the hall. Professor Thorn stopped at the closed door of the only lighted office. We could see nothing through its frosted glass window. No one answered our knock.
We knocked again and received no answer.
Professor Thorn called, "Laila?"
Still no answer.
I called, "Professor Sloan?" She was an instructor, not a professor, but in the present situation I would not quibble over niceties of protocol.
Again no answer. I twisted the knob and eased the door open a crack. "Professor Sloan?"
Only silence. Even the music in my head shut down. I opened the door and stepped inside, with Professor Thorn close behind. I looked to my left and saw nothing. Then Professor Thorn gasped. Her gloved hands fastened on my arm like those of a giant blacksmith trying to crush an anvil. She buried her head on my shoulder.
Quite a performance for a woman who didn't want to be touched.
Then I saw her reason.
Laila Sloan lay on her side on the floor near the right wall. On a table above her, a desktop computer clicked a few times, then fell silent. Her head had received several hard blows—apparently not long ago, for her temple still oozed blood that darkened the floor nearby. A large bruise disfigured her neck below the ear. But the lividity of her face suggested death by strangulation. And a silk scarf lay open-ended beneath her neck.
I shook off Professor Thorn's grip and pushed her back into the hallway.
"It's time to use that cell phone," I said.
Weeping, she gave it to me. Somewhere in the building a window banged open, and a blast of cold swept through the hall. With it came a premonition of some unseen force taking control of my life, boxing me in, making me remember things long forgotten.
I dialed 9-1-1 and made the report, then stood in the doorway, brooding and staring down at the battered remains of Laila Sloan.
Incongruously, the musicians in my head launched into the piccolo obbligato to a John Philip Sousa march.CHAPTER 2
While Professor Thorn and I stood silently in the hallway, the shrill twitter of my internal piccolo felt like rinsing out my ear with ice water. Except it was my brain that was frozen by what we had found.
Professor Thorn stopped crying and stood staring out into nowhere. I probably shared the vacant staring, and I confess my thoughts were not on Laila's death. I was wishing Professor Thorn had chosen someone else as her witness, and I wondered how soon I could get back to my comfortable rut of teaching history.
I should have known that wasn't going to happen.
Acrid fumes from the chem lab irritated our noses, and the open window, wherever it was, kept banging every few minutes. Occasional gusts of cold wind purified the air momentarily, and then the chemical stench would return.
"Shouldn't we call someone else?" Professor Thorn threw a worried glance at the cell phone in my hand. "I mean ... someone at the college ... the president or dean?"
"Not just yet," I said. I made no move to return her phone.
She looked doubtful but said nothing. The window banged a few more times, and we weathered a few more blasts of wind. Then, faintly, I heard police sirens.
"Now," I said, and dialed the home telephone of the college dean, who is known since The Great Renaming as the vice president for academic affairs.
Among faculty it is said cynically, though not very originally, that his affairs would necessarily be academic. His actual name is Dean Billig. He was promoted to dean while we were still Overton Grace College, and thus he became Dean Dean Billig. The faculty immediately shortened the name, not entirely affectionately, to Dean-Dean.
Years before my time, Dean-Dean came to Overton with a master's degree in psychology and gradually worked his way up to department chair. His lack of a Ph.D. posed no accreditation problem because the psychology department was folded into the division of social sciences. The division head was my boss, the well-credentialed chair of the history department.
However, Dean-Dean later earned his Ph.D. via correspondence without ever leaving our campus. That solved his personal accreditation problem but created another. He still grows self-conscious around faculty who earned degrees in residence at major universities, going eye-to-eye with tenured professionals in cutthroat oral examinations.
But that is ancient history.
Dean-Dean's high-pitched voice answered the third ring.
"This is Preston Barclay," I said. "We have a problem. Professor Thorn and I are at the college—"
"University," he corrected.
"... in the science center," I continued. "We've found Laila Sloan dead in her office."
There was a silence, after which Dean-Dean several times invoked the Deity to himself sotto voce. A faint rustle came through the line as if the phone were trembling against his ear.
"Are ... are you sure she's dead?" he asked.
"I'm sorry. There's no doubt." I resisted the temptation to use the phrase dead as a frozen mackerel. Although accurate, it seemed a bit insensitive.
"Do you ... can you tell how she died?" Dean-Dean had his breath back now and took a tentative step toward controlling the situation. The sirens grew louder, and I wondered if he could hear them through the phone.
How she died? I told him in words he couldn't misunderstand. "It looks like somebody slugged her and then choked her."
Dean-Dean invoked the Deity again, reflexively rather than conscientiously. "Don't call the police," he said. "I'll be right there. Whatever you do, don't call the police."
"I won't," I said.
"Good boy." He slammed down the receiver.
I guess that answered my question about whether he could hear the sirens.
I handed the phone back to Professor Thorn.
"What did you tell him you wouldn't do?" she asked.
"Call the police," I said.
The loose window banged again.
She frowned. "You've already called them. Why didn't you tell him?"
I grinned. "You'll see." I was feeling less and less like a history professor.
She again looked doubtful but said nothing.
Sirens came closer and the chemical odor grew stronger.
Concern showed on Professor Thorn's face. "Will we have to tell the police why we came here? It's so embarrassing...."
I gave her a straight look. "We have to tell them exactly what happened. If we lie or hold anything back, they'll dig it out and confront us with it. Our interviews won't be pleasant, but we haven't done anything wrong."
It had not yet occurred to me to question her story.
Sirens whined outside, then stopped, leaving an eerie silence. Even my internal music rested, bringing a welcome interlude of relief. Running footsteps sounded on the stairs, and two uniformed policemen burst into the hallway.
I pointed to the open office door. The lead policeman took two careful steps through the doorway. One look was enough. He came back outside and used his hand radio to call for backup. His partner sealed off the office with yellow tape.
Dimly heard mutterings from outside the building indicated that a crowd had formed. Mostly students, I supposed. There must have been more police restraining them, for none entered the building.
Excerpted from Rhapsody in Red by Donn Taylor, Michele Straubel. Copyright © 2008 Donn Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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