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Dr. David Mitchell waved me toward the dead professor's chair. "Try it out, son."
Mitchell and Detective DeLeon sat down on the students' side of the desk, the safe side. I took the professor's chair. It was padded in cushy black leather and smelled faintly of sports cologne. Walnut armrests. Great back support.
Mitchell smiled. "Comfortable?"
"I'd be more so," I told him, "if the last two people who sat here hadn't died."
Mitchell's smile thinned. He glanced at Detective DeLeon, got no help there, then looked wearily around the office -- the cluttered bookshelves, file cabinets topped with dreadlocks of dying pothos plants, the tattered Bayeux tapestry posters on the walls. "Son, Dr. Haimer's death was a heart attack."
"After receiving death threats and being driven out of the job," I recalled. "And Haimer's successor?"
Detective DeLeon sat forward. "That was a .45, Mr. Navarre."
When DeLeon moved, her blazer and skirt and silk blouse shimmered in frosty shades of gray, all sharp creases and angles. Her hair was cut in the same severe pattern, only black. Her eyes glittered. The whole effect reminded me of one of those sleek, fashionable Sub-Zero freezer units, petite size.
She tugged an incident report out of the folder in her lap, passed me a color Polaroid of Dr. Aaron Brandon -- the University of Texas at San Antonio's new medievalist for one-half of one glorious spring semester.
The photo showed a middle-aged Anglo man crumpled like a marionette in front of a fireplace. Behind him, the limestone mantel was smeared with red clawlike marks where the body had slid into sitting position against the grate. The man's hands were palms-up in his lap, supplicating. His blue eyes were open. He wore khaki pants and his bare, chunky upper body was matted with blood and curly black hair. Bored into his chest just above his nipples were two tattered holes the size of flashlight handles.
I pushed the photo back toward DeLeon. "You homicide investigators. Always so reassuring."
She smiled without warmth.
I looked at Mitchell. "You really expect me to take the job?"
Mitchell shifted in his seat, looking everywhere except at the photo of his former faculty member. He scratched one triangular white sideburn.
The poor guy had obviously gotten no sleep in the last week. His suit jacket was rumpled. His rodentlike features had lost their quickness. He looked infinitely older and more grizzled than he had just six months ago, when he'd offered me this same position for the first time.
It had been mid-October then. Dr. Theodore Haimer had just been forced into retirement after his comments about "the damn coddled Mexicans at UTSA" made the Express-News and triggered an avalanche of student protests and hate mail the likes of which the normally placid campus had never seen. Shortly afterward, while the English division was still boxing up Haimer's books and interviewing candidates for his job, the old man had been found at home, his heart frozen like a chunk of quartz, his face buried in a bowl of dry Apple Jacks.
I'd decided against teaching at the time because I'd been finishing my apprenticeship with Erainya Manos for a private investigator's license.
My mother, who'd arranged the first interview with Mitchell, had not been thrilled. A nice safe job for once, she'd pleaded. A chance to get back into academia.
Looking now at the photo of Aaron Brandon, who'd taken the nice safe job instead of me, I thought maybe the whole "Mother Knows Best" thing was overrated.
"We offered you this position last fall, Tres." Mitchell tried to keep the petulance out of his voice, the implication that I could've saved him a lot of trouble back in October, maybe gotten myself killed right off the bat. "I think you should reconsider."
I said, "A second chance."
"And you couldn't pay any reputable professor enough money now."
Mitchell's left eye twitched. "It's true we need a person with very special qualifications. The fact that you, ah, have another set of skills--"
"You can watch your ass," Detective DeLeon translated. "Maybe avoid making yourself corpse number three until we make an arrest."
I was loving this woman.
I swiveled in Aaron Brandon's chair and gazed out the window. A couple of pigeons roosted on the ledge outside the glass. Beyond, the view of the UTSA quadrangle was obscured by the upper branches of a mesquite, shining with new margarita-green foliage. Through the leaves I could see the walls of the Behavioral Sciences Building next door, the small red and blue shapes of students making their way up and down steps in the central courtyard, across wide grassy spaces and concrete walkways.
Icicle-blue sky, temperature in the low eighties. Your basic perfect Texas spring day outside your basic perfect campus office. It was a view Dr. Haimer had earned through twenty years of tenure. A view Aaron Brandon had enjoyed for less than ninety days.
I turned back to the dead man's office.
Yellow loops of leftover crime-scene tape were stuffed into the waist-high metal trash can between Brandon's desk and the window. On the corner of the desk sat a pile of ungraded essays from the undergraduate Chaucer seminar. Next to that was a silver-framed photo of the professor with a very pretty Latina woman and a child, maybe three years old. They were all standing in front of an old-fashioned merry-go-round. The little boy had Brandon's blue eyes and the woman's smile and reddish-brown hair.
Next to the photo were the death threats -- a neat stack of seven white business envelopes computer-printed in Chicago 12-point, each containing one page of well-written, grammatically correct venom. Each threat was unsigned. The first was addressed to Theodore Haimer, the following six to Aaron Brandon. One dated two weeks ago promised a pipe bomb. One dated a week before that promised a knife in Brandon's back as a symbol of how the Latino community felt about the Establishment replacing one white racist with another. The campus had been swept and no bombs had been found; no knives had been forthcoming. None of the letters said anything about shooting Brandon at home in the chest with a .45.
"You have leads?" I asked DeLeon.
She gave me the Sub-Zero smile. "You know Sergeant Schaeffer, Mr. Navarre?"
I said, "Whoops."
Gene Schaeffer had been a detective in homicide until recently, when he'd accepted a transfer promotion to vice. Sometimes Schaeffer and I were friends. More often, like whenever I needed something from him, Schaeffer wanted to kill me.
"The sergeant warned me about you," DeLeon confirmed. "Something about your father being a retired captain -- you feeling you had special privileges."
"Bexar County Sheriff," I corrected. "Dead, not retired."
"You've got no special privileges with me, Mr. Navarre. Whatever else you do, you're going to stay out of my investigation."
"And if the person or persons who killed Brandon decides I'm Anglo racist oppressor number three?"
DeLeon smiled a little more genuinely. I think the idea appealed to her. "You cover your ass until we get it straightened out. You can do that, right?"
How to say no to a job offer. Let me count the ways.
"I'd have to talk with my employer--"
"Erainya Manos," Dr. Mitchell interrupted. "We've already done that."
I stared at him.
"The provost is more than agreeable to retaining Ms. Manos' services," Mitchell said wearily, like he'd already spent too much time haggling that point. "While you're teaching for us, Ms. Manos will be finding out what she can about the hate mail, assessing potential continued threats to the faculty."
"You're wasting your money," DeLeon told him.
Mitchell continued as if she hadn't spoken. "The campus attorney's office has employed private investigation firms before. Confidence-building measure. Ms. Manos considered the contract a more-than-fair trade for sharing your time with us, son."
I looked at DeLeon.
She shrugged. "Say no if you want, Mr. Navarre. I've got no interest in your P.I. business. I'm simply not opposed to the campus hiring somebody who can stay alive for longer than three months."
I gave her a Gee thanks smile.
I sat back in the late Aaron Brandon's chair, understanding now why Erainya Manos had cheerily let me take the morning off. You have to cherish those open employer-employee relationships.
Mitchell was about to say something more when there was a knock on the office door.
A large young man leaned into the room, checked us all out, focused in on me, then wedged a plastic bin of mail through the doorway.
"You're the replacement," he said to me. "Thought so."
I'm of the opinion that you can categorize just about anybody by the type of vegetable their clone would've grown from in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The guy in the doorway was definitely a radish. His skin was composed of alternate white and ruddy splotches and gnarled with old acne scars. On top of his head was a small sprig of bleached hair that matched the white rooty whiskers on his chin. His upper body sagged over his belt in generous slabs of red polo-shirted flesh. His face had upwardly smeared features -- lips, nose, eyebrows. They did not beckon with intelligence.
"Gregory," Professor Mitchell sighed. "Not now."
Gregory pushed his way farther into the office. He balanced his mail bin on his belly and stared at me expectantly. "You have my essay?"
"Gregory, this isn't the time," Mitchell insisted.
Gregory grunted. "I told Brandon, I said, 'Man, some people are really late with the grading but you take the cake. You ever want your mail again you get me my essay back.' That's what I told him. You got it graded yet?"
Gregory didn't smile back. His eyes seemed out of focus. Maybe he wasn't talking to me at all. Maybe he was talking to the pothos plants.
"I don't have your essay," I said.
"It's the one on the werewolf," he insisted. The mail bin sagged against his side. I'd disappointed him. "The Marie de France dit."
"Bisclavret," I guessed.
"Yeah." Unfocused light twinkled in his eyes. Had I read the essay after all? Had the pothos read it?
"Bisclavret's a lai," I said. "A long narrative poem. Dits are shorter, like fables. The essay's not graded and I may not be the one grading it, Gregory."
He frowned. "It's a dit."
Professor Mitchell sighed through his nose. "Gregory, we're having a conference..."
DeLeon took off her gray blazer and folded it over the top of her chair. Her bone-colored silk blouse was sleeveless, her arms the color of French roast and smoothly muscled. Her side arm was visible now -- a tiny black Glock 23 in a leather Sam Browne holster. When Gregory saw the gun, his mouth closed fully for the first time in the conversation, maybe the first time in his life.
DeLeon said, "Dr. Navarre told you it was a lai, Gregory. Were there any other questions?"
Gregory kept his mouth closed. He shifted his mail bin around, looked at Professor Mitchell like he was expecting protection, then at me. "Maybe I could check back tomorrow?"
"Good idea," I said. "And the mail?"
Gregory thought about it, checked out DeLeon's Glock one more time, then dipped a beefy hand into the bin. He brought out a rubber-banded stack of letters that probably represented two weeks of withheld mail. He threw it on the desk and knocked over the silver-framed photo of Brandon's family.
"Fine," Gregory said. "Package, too."
The package hit the table with a muffled clunk. It was a manila bubble-wrap mailer, eleven by seventeen, dinged up and glistening at both ends with scotch tape. It had a large red stamp along the side that read INTRACAMPUS DELIVERIES ONLY.
While Professor Mitchell shooed Gregory out the door, DeLeon and I were staring at the same thing -- the plain white address label on the mailing envelope. AARON BRANDON, HSS 3.11. No street address or zip. No return. A computer-printed label, Chicago 12-point.
I remember locking eyes with DeLeon for maybe half a second. After that it happened fast.
DeLeon put a hand on Professor Mitchell's shoulder and calmly started to say, "Why don't we go--" when something inside the package made a plasticky crick-crick-crick sound like a soda bottle cap being twisted off.
DeLeon was smaller than Mitchell by maybe a hundred pounds, but she had him wrestled to the floor on the count of two. I should have followed her example.
Instead, I swept the package off the desk and into the metal trash can.
Nice plan if I'd been able to get to the floor myself. But the trash can started toppling. First toward my face. Then toward the window. Then it went off like a cannon.
In the first millisecond, even before the sound registered, the force of the blast frosted a huge ragged oval in the glass, then melted it in a cone of metal shards and yellow ribbon and flames, ripping through the wall and the mesquite outside and shredding the new leaves and branches into ticker tape.
I was on my butt in the opposite corner of the office. My ankle was twisted in the walnut armrest of Aaron Brandon's overturned chair and my ribs had slammed against a filing cabinet. There was an upside-down pothos plant in my lap. Someone was pressing a very large A-flat tuning fork to the base of my skull and my left cheek felt wet and cold. I dabbed at the cheek with my fingers, felt nothing, brought my fingers away, and saw that they glistened red.
Except for the tuning fork, the room was silent. Leaves and pigeon feathers and pages from essays were twirling aimlessly in the air, curlicuing in and out of the blasted wall. There was a fine white smoke layering the room and a smell like burning swimming-pool chemicals.
Slowly, DeLeon got to her feet. A single yellow pothos leaf was stuck in her hair. She pulled Mitchell up by the elbow.
Neither of them looked hurt. DeLeon examined the room coolly, then looked at me, focusing on the side of my face.
"You're bleeding," she announced.
It sounded like she was talking through a can and string, but I was relieved to register any sound at all. Then I heard other things -- voices in the plaza below, people yelling. A low, hot sizzle from the remnants of the blasted garbage can.
I staggered to my feet, brushed the plant and the dirt off my lap, took a step toward the window. No more pigeons on the ledge. The bottom of the garbage can, the only part that wasn't shredded, had propelled itself backward with such force that an inch of the base was embedded in the side of the oak desk.
Distressed voices were coming down the hall now. Insistent knocks on neighboring doors.
Mitchell's eyelids stuck together when he blinked. He shook his head and focused on me with great effort. "I don't -- I don't..."
DeLeon patted the old professor's shoulder, telling him she thought he was going to be okay. Then she looked at me. "A doctor for that cheek. What do you think?"
I looked out the hole somebody had just blasted in a perfect spring day. I said, "I think I'll take the job."