Jessica James is broke and counting down the days until she can defend her philosophy thesis. Desperate to get out of her grubby attic digs, she and her friends break into her professor's office... only to find her adviser dead in the tub. Scoping the crime scene for clues, she leaves evidence that makes her both a suspect and a target.
Suspecting the school's Russian janitor of doing more than sweeping the floors, Jessica mounts an investigation to clear her name. And when her ragtag posse helps her uncover a related date drug scandal, repeated attempts on her drink make her fear she's the next on the killer's to-do list.
Can Jessica unmask the murderer before her degree gets buried six-feet-under?
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LYING ATOP THE lone desk in an otherwise empty attic, Jessica James chewed at a jagged corner of her fingernail, staring up at the antique cobwebs on the dusty light fixture and wondering how her first year in graduate school had become such a tinderbox. When she ran out of fingernail, she chewed on the skin underneath until she tasted blood, then sucked on her ironclad humiliation. Inspired by the painful pressure of the hard desk against her boney hip, Jessica closed her eyes and imagined a fitting demise for the thesis advisor whose Birkenstocks had stomped on her dream of getting an advanced degree: a quick defenestration, a slow acting poison, or a hard bludgeon to his fat ugly head with the blunt side of an axe. Professor Baldrick Wolfgang Schmutzig, "Preeminent Philosopher" (and World-Class Dickhead) had insulted her for the last time.
Tap. Something hit the attic window. Jessica sat at attention, straining to listen in the darkness. Tap. Tap. She slipped off the desk then tiptoed over to the window and tried to peer out, but all she saw was her round freckled face, messy blonde hair, and startled blue eyes reflected in the thick antique windows. Even during the day, those cataracts of milky glass tainted the outside world with green light, as if everything were tinged with rot. She yanked at the casement, but sealed shut from a century's worth of impenetrable paint, the frame wouldn't budge.
Twenty years ago, Northwestern University had acquired the Victorian mansion and its posh city block. Once inhabited by Chicago's smartest and most fashionable set, now it housed a well-educated group of misfits and oddballs. She hated to think what kind of spirits might haunt this place: anxious graduate students overdosed on No-Doze, suicidal professors denied tenure, shamed secretaries asphyxiated by acetone, clumsy co-eds tripping down the stairs on killer spiked heels. For the past two nights, Brentano Hall's creaky noises, cold drafts, and musty odors had been giving her the creeps, but she dreaded trudging home to Alpine Vista trailer park and its familiar inhabitants, moose-eating rednecks, tree-hugging hippies, and neo-Nazi skinheads. Twelve more sleepless nights before she could slog back to Montana--high, wide and boring.
Tap. Tap. Tap. As pebbles continued showering the window, Jessica jammed her bare feet into her Ropers, threw her fringe jacket over the dirty t-shirt and faded jeans she'd been sleeping in, then crept out of the abandoned office and headed for the narrow staircase. All she needed to top off this week from hell was the campus police busting her for living in the Philosophy Department attic. Galloping down the stairs into god-knows-what in the middle of the night, she thought of her mom's parting words almost a year ago, "Be good." Then holding Jessica at arm's length for inspection, she'd added with a wink, "And if you can't be good, be careful."
Holding onto the banister, Jessica hesitated at the second floor landing, then ducked into the bathroom, scooted across the tiny room to the window, and peered out. Nothing but a sliver of yellow moon against a starless sky. She craned her neck to look down at the side lawn. Nobody. Ping. Ping. Whoever was pelting poor old Brentano Hall was going to blow her cover. So far only the secretary and the janitor knew she was living in the attic, and the janitor had just left a few minutes ago at ten when his shift ended. When the tapping became banging, Jessica dashed back to the staircase and quickened her pace, trying not to slip down the remaining stairs. If she didn't stop the ruckus soon, the campus police would. Bang. Bang. Bang. The projectiles were picking up pace.
Growing up in a scrappy trailer park, Jessica had learned to keep a safe distance from flying objects, especially whizzing vodka-tonics and airborne ashtrays, the fallout from her mother's drunken mood swings. Muscles taut, ready to dodge whatever was thrown her way, her childhood reflexes had outstripped her coordination, and she'd found herself jolting and jerking into adulthood, her pensive watchfulness mistaken for keen intelligence. Along the way, she'd learned, if she kept her mouth shut, eyes open, and ducked, she could slip under the radar, especially when she tucked her long blonde hair up into a cowboy hat and wore her jeans one size too big. Better to stand back and watch, assess the situation and stay out of the crossfire.
Jessica stopped in front of the door to the departmental library, took a deep breath, turned the doorknob, and then inched along the library wall, staying away from the window, still trying to see whoever was out there without being spotted.
"Hang back, follow the leader, and enjoy the ride," her mom always said. Of course, she was giving a poker lesson, but it seemed a pretty good life lesson too. Jessica had tried to heed that lesson for most of her twenty-one years, but eventually her curiosity would get the best of her. Then she couldn't resist poking at a leaky gas-cap, throwing a can of Coke into the campfire, turning her cousin's Ping-Pong balls into gun cotton, or checking to see if horse manure was really flammable. As hard as she tried to be good, Jessica James was constitutionally incapable of being careful, and maybe that's why she was at this very minute running headlong into unknown flying objects being hurled at Brentano Hall.
By the time she'd reached the bottom of the staircase, the tapping and banging had stopped, and now she could hear shouting coming from outside. "Jesse, are you up there? Let us in," a familiar voice yelled.
When she opened the heavy wooden front door and stepped out onto the sagging wraparound porch, she spotted her stoner buddy Jack on the lawn fondling his girlfriend-of-the-month, Amber Bush, a buxom hippy with coils of red hair snaking off her head in all directions, paisley nightgown hanging down to the top of her beat-up Uggs, as if she'd run out of the house in the middle of the night to escape a fire. Amber's mouth opened to say something but soundlessly froze into a perfect O. Jessica had known her long enough not to ask about the sticky brown stuff on her forehead.
"Are you trying to get me busted? Or did you wake me up in the middle of the night so I could watch you make-out?" Jessica shook her head, narrowed her eyes, and pierced her lips. "You guys might as well saddle up and git. I'm going back inside."
"Whoa there. Not so fast, cowgirl. We just scored some killer weed." Jack was hopping from foot to foot. "Wanna smoke it with us?"
"Where'd you get it?"
"At a RatDog concert in Milwaukee." Jack ambled up onto the porch, leading Amber by the hand.
"You went to Milwaukee?" Jessica asked. "Who's RatDog?" She buttoned her fringe jacket and hugged herself to block the brisk June breeze.
"What's left of The Grateful Dead, greatest band of all time," Jack said as he grabbed the front door handle and yanked the door open. "They did a mind-blowing 'Scarlet Begonias'."
"It was really cool," Amber whispered, tilting her head to one side, twisting one of her hair-snakes around her finger, and flicking the end of it into her mouth.
"Sorry I asked," Jessica said, rolling her eyes.
"Get inside before the cops see you." She pushed her friends inside the building and closed the door behind them. Before Jack could start another dissertation on washed-up psychedelic rock bands, she headed back upstairs.
Sleep deprived, climbing the uneven stairs was making her woozy, so she gripped the banister tighter. She hadn't slept in two nights and was hoping the dope would knock her out. When she reached the first landing, she took note of the tired hardwood floors, gouged from heavy desks dragged from room to room, and the beautiful carved banister, blackened from hundreds of years of steadying palms. Lingering just beneath the smell of moldy file folders was the faint scent of pipe tobacco from the old days when professors used to smoke in their offices. Now, the few remaining smokers huddled outside under the front awning puffing on Carlton Lights.
With each step of her boots, the ancient staircase creaked and groaned, a familiar lament from the neglected old house. In response, she lightened her step and continued on tiptoe. In spite of its nine-foot ceilings, the mahogany wainscoting and warped floorboards made the antiquated house feel claustrophobic, a sailing ship lost at sea, forever rolling this way and that.
Upon reaching the second floor landing, a wave of nausea hit as she found herself staring at a gold engraved nameplate: Professor Baldrick Wolfgang Schmutzig. She blew at her bangs, clenched her fists, and closed her eyes tight as she marched past the office, but she didn't open them soon enough to avoid tripping on the first stair up to the attic.
"Hey, let's smoke it in Wolf's office!" Jack said. Professor B. W. Schmutzig had given Jack his only B in college.
"Is breaking and entering part of your medical school homework, Jackass?" Jessica picked herself up and continued up the stairs. "Is that why you're studying criminal psychiatry?"
"Watch this." Jack whipped out a credit card and slid it between the doorframe and the lock, popping the office door open.
"Holy Shit! I thought you were joking." Jessica stumbled back down the stairs and grabbed at Jack's shirt, but he'd already slipped through the door and Amber had slid in after him. Jessica had no choice but to follow and shut the door behind her.
"If campus security finds us and I get kicked out of grad school, I'm gonna strangle you blue." Jackass was always pulling crazy stunts like this, and against her better judgment, she always tagged along.
"That which does not kill me, makes me stronger." Jack strolled across the office and shoved some papers off the desk onto the floor, then sat on top of the desk, skinny legs dangling over the side, kicking his desert shoes back and forth against the radiator.
"I love that song." Amber dropped her mammoth purse in a corner on top of a pile of books and sat next to him petting his long wavy hair and cooing into his ear.
"Apricot, it's Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols." Jack pulled a baggie out of his jean-jacket pocket, scrounged around in the fast food wrappers piled on the desk and found a wad of foil. He deftly fashioned a makeshift pipe, filled it, lit it, took a long drag, and then passed it to Jessica. She took the funky pipe and inhaled, holding the smoke in hard.
"Should be, what doesn't kill you sends you to therapy for life," she said, still sucking in air, trying not to exhale. When she finally had to exhale, all the tension of the last week evaporated along with the cloud of sweet smoke.
"You're doing pretty good for a fucked-up cowgirl from Montana. Fresh off the farm, as pert as a morning buttercup and as smooth as a cow's udder, that's how I'll always remember you."
"It's a ranch, not a farm, dumbass." Jessica surveyed Wolf Schmutzig's pigsty of an office and leaned her hip against the edge of the desk.
"Ranch? Farm? What's the difference? You can take the girl out of the country, as they say." Jack's laugh had a smooth smoky quality, and his charismatic smile made him popular with women, at least the ones who liked sexy nerds. Jessica had a penchant for sexy nerds, but so far she'd managed to deflect Jack's charms. More like bronco riding than flirting, they took turns tossing each other to the ground. Besides, until last week, she'd had a boyfriend. After Michael cheated on her, she'd sworn off romance ... at least until the end of the summer.
Her ex-boyfriend's infidelity hadn't been the first time she'd had to learn the hard way that every man's admirable qualities (kindness, charm, intelligence, cute butt--you name it) had an evil twin waiting in the shadows to bite her in the ass when she'd least expected it. It hadn't taken a Ph.D. in philosophy to teach Jessica James that virtue was just the flip side of vice. A quick study, she'd already learned that from her limited experience with men.
Jack hopped off the desk and started to unzip his fly. "Speaking of farm animals, how about I take a piss in this barnyard Bald-Dick calls home?"
"Don't be an idiot. No wonder you're studying criminal psychopaths. It takes one to know one." Scooting a stack of papers to one side, Jessica sat on the edge of the desk and turned around to face him.
"Yeah, the world is full of psychopaths, Cowgirl. And philosophers are some of the best examples. Take world famous Professor Bald-Dick Schmutzig here. He lives in this revolting office," Jack said in a throaty voice, trying to choke back smoke. "Typical philosopher, arrogant asshole living in a fantasy world revolving entirely around his own supposed genius. Bald-Dick is a classic paranoid narcissist, delusions of grandeur and all." Thankfully, Jack had zipped up his fly and taken a seat on the window ledge behind the desk. The pipe had gone out, so he lit it again and passed it to Amber.
"Maybe that's why Wolf told me 'it takes more than intelligence to get a Ph.D., Miss James'. You need to become an arrogant arse-hole like me," she said, imitating Schmutzig's annoying nasally voice and then started giggling. The pot must be working. It dulled the blade of her advisor's razor sharp insult.
"You're too nice to be a philosopher, and much too attractive." Jack's mischievous brown eyes danced as he waved his hand in front of the stack of pizza boxes next to the desk. "But you are a slob, so at least you've got that going for you. You'll never be an arrogant asshole ... too young, too innocent, mind as pure as the driven snow of a pristine Montana winter."
"More like yellow snow." Jessica stepped over a pile of books and papers and stared down at the jumble of greasy pizza boxes, cheesy hamburger wrappers, and half-full plastic Pepsi bottles. She picked a coffee cup up off a stack of books piled next to the desk and examined the crusty black scum inside, probably nuclear bomb resistant mold.
"Dirty office, dirty mind." She put the cup back on top of a faded journal, then plucked a pencil from a penholder on the desk and used it to poke at a piece of pizza crust, scooting it off the desk onto the floor. Professor Wolf Schmutzig's office was an academic version of those hoarder shows on television, and it reeked like a dead animal in spite of the clouds of spicy pot smoke.
"I think it's admirable the professor lives here," Amber said. "Maybe he's saving money to send to orphans in Tibet, or feed the poor in Africa, or support a family of refugees ... or even put his kids through college. Does he have kids?" She was gnawing on some chocolate she'd found amidst the rubble on the desk.
"No, Wolf doesn't have any kids." Jessica took another hit and started to giggle.
"What's so funny?" Amber asked, her mouth covered in melted chocolate.
Jessica couldn't stop laughing. "I'm imagining a baby Wolf with little lamb-chop sideburns, two baby Brillo pads stuck to either side of its tiny face, teeny bulging eyes, petite bulbous nose, diminutive bubble ears, all those miniature balloons bobbing off its baby Einstein head!" As smoke filled her sinuses, a wasabi buzz scalded her scalp and she jerked her hand to the top of her head, pressing down hard to stop the tingling, but then she started laughing even harder.
"Don't forget the mini wool socks and tiny Birkenstocks," Amber added, giggling.
"I have to take a leak," Jack said heading for Schmutzig's bathroom.
"No, you don't." Jessica intercepted him and seized the doorknob so he couldn't get in. When he started tickling her under her arms, she pushed him away, but then Amber joined in, and now both of them were pawing at her. "Stop it!" she cried, tears in her eyes from laughing so hard. "You're going to make me pee my pants!"
Bang. A loud noise startled her. She lurched forward and the top of her head collided with Jack's skull. Recoiling, he yelled, "Fuck that hurt! I think you gave me a concussion. The brain is a soft organ ..."
"Shut up, Jack." She glared at him. "Or, I'll aim for another soft organ."
The noise from downstairs was getting louder.
"But concussions can be fatal. I could ..."
"SHUT UP, JACKASS!" He stopped mid-sentence, pouted, and rubbed the back of his head. She heard footsteps getting closer. Someone was coming up the stairs. Amber's face stiffened into a hippie Medusa, mouth frozen into that uncanny O, snaky hair slithering to escape her head.
"Quick, turn off the lights." Jessica glanced around the office. "Amber strip! Give me your nightgown."
"Whaa?" Amber's oval mouth didn't move.
"Just do it. Hand it over." Jessica thrust her hand out and waited for Amber to take off her nightgown. Now wearing only her Uggs, Amber was crouching in the corner, hugging her knees to her bare boobs. On hands and knees, Jessica crawled over and stuffed the nightgown under the door to keep the smoke from escaping. She froze when she detected a rattling coming from the office doorknob. Shit, she'd get a prison sentence instead of a doctoral degree.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wolf"
Copyright © 2016 Kelly Oliver.
Excerpted by permission of Kaos Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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