Get a sneek preview of my latest book, The Cues.
Updated: Jan 27
#amateursleuth #truecrimemurdermystery #smalltowncrime #charitableauthors
It was the first week of the winter semester and I was hovering over my desk packing up for my ten- thirty, when Phil Rister poked his head in. Eyes reddened, he reached across my desk and handed over the Echo Times.
“Figured you hadn’t heard; know you don’t read newspapers,” he said. “I called and texted, but you never answer your phone.”
“Forgot to charge the thing.”
An above-the-fold headline jumped out: “Popular Prof, 61, Dies.”
“Oh my God.” I sat. A picture showed a pearl-toothed Joe, white politician hair. A sidebar outlined accomplishments: PhD, author of ten textbooks, marathon runner. “Fuck… When… What happened? Not a virus thing?”
Rister drew up my blind to a view of an iron-cast sky and the campus mall below. His voice cracked. “No. Over the weekend. As only Joe would do, he had propped up the ladder to an attic opening to clean it out, or something, and fell back, the ladder with him, and fractured some ribs.
“Kate rushed him to the hospital. They wrapped him up and were about to send him home, but the doctors advised to keep him for observation over the weekend. But apparently something happened in the middle of the night and he went into cardiac arrest. That was it.”
I looked at the picture of the man I’d known over a decade, svelte for his age and always willing to give another space to talk. “I can’t believe it. How is Kate?”
Rister rubbed off a dust bunny from the windowsill. “As good as she can be. She said Joe didn’t want us to know he was in the hospital because he thought we’d be over there hassling the nurses.” He took out a cloth hanky from his coat and dabbed his eyes. We let the news between us settle in.
I read the paper for any mention of cause of death. Nothing. “Was an autopsy done?”
“I don’t know. But there was a double whammy; when they all came back from the funeral home talking about preparations, they found their home had been broken into.”
“Kate said she didn’t notice anything, no window broken or door jimmied, until she went into Joe’s study and found drawers open and papers strewn about. Joe always kept a clean ship, so she knew someone had been tinkering with his things. The kids said they hadn’t been in the study.”
“He was planning his retirement.”
“Yeah, just wanted to get the project going first,” Rister said, dabbing at another dust bunny, cording the blind down. “Best view in town, especially for an adjunct, even though they put you over here across campus, away from your department.” He picked up the frayed copy of Hobbes’s Leviathan on my desk. “Tough stuff. Old English?” he said, digressing from the tragedy at hand.
“Uh, more for show than anything.”
“What was it Hobbes said about man’s life, something about it being brutish and short?”
“Something like that.” We nodded about the appropriateness of the adage.
“You have a 10:30?”
“Yeah. Fuck… Poor Joe. I can’t believe it.”
I dropped my cell, an all too loaded-down Android with apps I didn’t use, in my canvas bag, along with a course syllabus and a voluminous third edition of The History of the Great Speakers. The futility of it all flooded in, admonishing me I was wasting precious time expounding upon what renowned people said about this and that. Both of us stopped at the picture of the foursome on my bookshelf, Joe in the middle, holding up the trophy for first place in last year’s scramble golf tournament.
For the past three years during the golf season, which in our part of the world was all too short, Joe had been part of the Friday afternoon foursome with me, Rister, and Issac Peterman. He had routinely birdied the seventh, a par five that sloped down like a ski run. Being versed in hitting a downhill lie, something Joe was forever schooling us in, was needed if you ever wanted to hit the green that sat like a lighthouse above a cavernous gulch some five hundred yards from the tee box. It was the hardest hole on the course, and if you finished it with a bogey six, your day was made.
Rister touched the photograph. “We should still take the trip across the pond for the Open, like Joe wanted us to do.”
At my door, I fumbled for keys. “The project,” I said. “He just was getting that going for the department. Who is going to head that up? What is it called?”
“The Cold Case Project. Mostly related to missing persons. Looks like yours truly,” Rister said. “He was real excited about it. Patterned, at least from an investigative journalism perspective, after Northwestern’s Innocence Project.”
“Medill School of Journalism?”
“Right. Barry Scheck, the lawyer, is also a co-founder there, I think.”
We took the stairway down. Outside we stood in awkward silence.
“I’ll let you know what else I find out,” Rister said, adjusting his scarf into his coat and dropping his chin onto the lining as a wind gust blew across the mall. He rolled up the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. We hugged. His eyes watered up. He headed toward the Memorial Union, where we met most days for lunch, to tell those who hadn’t heard.
“Let’s get him a bench or something on the seventh hole,” he yelled back.
I pulled up the collar of my navy pea, dug out my Connemara walking cap from a holey pocket, and burrowed myself in, making a mental note to call Joe’s wife and get the specifics of what happened. I didn’t mention to Rister that Joe had talked to me about the cold case course. He thought my past life experiences might be useful from a practical sense about solving crime.
A plastic cup cartwheeled across the cobblestone walk. I deposited it in the nearby trash can, but not before examining the personalized image of a woman in high heels, scantily clad in a negligee. A caption read “Jasper’s Gentlemen’s Club.” Visits I’d made there with Issac Peterman blew across my radar screen. We’d always invited Joe, but he’d always turned us down. The Union Tower bell chimed ten times. I’d be early to class for a change. Tears welled up.
In the American Midwest most colleges had reopened following another lifting of the Coronavirus shutdown mandate, but attendance was not back to par, when campuses had bustled with students. Many were still opting for online courses. Some students attending classes wore nose-to-chin masks. Colorful Jesse James-like bandanas, Black Lives Matter, and an assortment of Save the Whales headgear boldly told others who you were.
I made it to my building, a red-brick, four-story, Civil War era. The only way up was by stairs. Somewhere up the flight I heard girl-talk. Talks—that was what I’d miss most about Joe. Being fifteen years the senior of the group, he’d always thrown out tidbits and truisms as our foursome made its way up and down the hills and in and out of the weeds on those Friday afternoons. It was Joe who always coaxed us into walking the course.
“If I can do it, you lads can,” he’d say, scolding us for being too soft. At the turn, the end of the first nine holes, he’d say, “Dara gaoth, dara gaoth,” loosely translated from Gaelic as “second wind.” And off we’d go for the next nine, like plebes following an upperclassman, sweating beads.
I entered my classroom to the smiles of two coeds, who looked just out of high school. One was masked and listening to the other, unmasked and chattering a mile a minute. A young man with a wannabe beard, conducting business on a gadget yoked to his right hand, momentarily checked me out, then returned to his pacifier.
“Is this History of the Great Speakers?” one girl asked.
“It is.” I wrote out my name on the board with a stub of chalk and sat on the desk. I took a chair as a footrest and waited to see who else would show.
The roster had twenty, which was all I had told my department head I could take for this type of course, which I wanted to be discussion-based. There was a paper clip attachment to my roster from my department chair noting those students who wanted to do the class online and Zoom with the professor.
Two more males showed who had that jock swagger and sat in back-row seats, followed by a well-put-together older coed dressed to the nines. She took a seat up front, close enough for me to whiff her perfume, a lavender extract.
I listened for any sounds coming up the stairs, then said, “Let’s get started,” even though less than half the roster had showed up.
My opening-day sermon laid out what was expected of them and what was expected of me. I then dismissed them a half hour early. It was Tuesday and I didn’t have anything scheduled the rest of the day. It would be noon soon. I would need to call Joe’s wife. But I needed something to quell the afternoon melancholia that was sure to set in.
The first flurries of the day had started as I entered Das Hoffenhaus, known to patrons as just the Haus, named after the Hoffen family whose home had been on the site. The family had made their residence into lodging for students a century earlier. But when the family died off the old home was torn down and the new property owners built a pub, keeping the family name. Now some fifty-plus years old, the Haus was the only pub left near campus. All the other traditional drinking landmarks had been demolished due the college’s new campaign for a pristine, politically correct, dry look.
The appealing aspect of the Haus was its ambiance of walnut-colored walls and deep booths, all of which made one’s palate salivate for kraut and ale. A horseshoe bar at the back was stocked with a collection of the hard stuff and wines, selections neatly arranged on shelves. Built into the wall above the bar were two widescreen televisions. Two others hung from ceiling mounts. Six tap spigots offered ample choice for the beer aficionado. The walls were ornamented with pictures of the campus, the old lodging house, and football legends of yesteryear—Christman, Faurot, Devine, Larose—and the more recents: Mosely, Hill, Winslow, Maclin, Brad Smith, and Drew Lock. While food and drink establishments had suffered the wrath of the pandemic, the Haus had held its own, thanks to the locals and the student population.
I scooted into a booth. The pub was empty except for a table of Asian students dutifully getting a jump on the semester. All wore white surgical masks and were hunched over their laptops. A woman and a man, seemingly university grounds employees, were sitting at the bar. I scattered out my class roster—mostly women’s names—and situated my cell next to me in the event someone called about Joe. Sade’s “Smooth Operator” played on the pub soundtrack.
I thumbed through the Great Speakers text, which had been recommended to me by a colleague at the neighboring women’s college because of its inclusion of American female orators. Maya Angelou, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Hillary Clinton, among others. Tucked between two pages in the index was an article given to me by a colleague, entitled “The Psychology of the Explorer.” Good topic, I thought, but more so for a male audience. Written was, “Thought you’d enjoy. What do you make of it?” I browsed the article, something about why men explore and the psychic nature of those who do, when a wrapped napkin and glass of water were placed in front of me.
“You’re back,” she said, a hint of gladness in her tone, as if she knew me.
I followed her thighs up to the pen in her left hand, and to a vaguely familiar face. A black bandana hung loosely like a scarf about her neck, a makeshift kind of mask. “Oh. Uh, yeah. And how are you?” I said, almost blushing, being mindful not to rub my nose or run my hand through my thinning strands like some nervous schoolboy, not wanting to let on that while she looked familiar, I couldn’t remember her name. She started to pull up the bandana. “You’re good,” I said.
I moved back a bit trying to keep my eyes focused on hers, green, with small gray speckles sprinkled about. Even though the elements outside were changing for the worse, she had on a short-sleeved red T-shirt with a bad rendering of the Haus drawn on it. Freckles dotted her forearms. Her shirt was neatly tucked into her jeans, which only accentuated her bust. I looked for a name tag but saw none.
It had been two weeks since I’d last been at the pub, the Friday night of watching the Orange Bowl. I’d stumbled the quarter mile home to my small apartment following a hard night of imbibing with Rister and Joe. It was my last time with him.
“Are you here for lunch?”
“Yes. But I’ll make it easy on you; just a plate of your finest fries, and—”
“And a pint of Boulevard, if I remember?” she said. “Or, given it’s a school day, just iced tea?”
“Right you are. A Boulevard.”
She resituated the silverware, smiled, and whisked away. I searched my memory for a recollection of her. I guessed she had waited on me two weeks ago.
I followed my Boulevard as it made its way to me. She set the pint glass down and whisked herself away again. I swished the brew around.
Two faculty members from what I thought was the School of Education took a table nearby and nodded perfunctorily toward me. I reciprocated, then adjusted my reading glasses and perused the article about the psychology of the explorer.
Renowned explorers, it said, explore because that’s the only thing they do well. And exploration wards off depression. Somewhere sexual repression was factored in, thus, exploring offered an escape from the ever-present need to satisfy urges. I looked for some reference citations, but found none. A bibliography was missing. Only the author’s name gave me something to go on if I wanted to follow up with some research.
Halfway through the Boulevard, my food arrived. “Already buried in your work. An extra helping to get you through the day, professor,” she said, placing a stack of Hoffenhaus fries directly in front of me.
She knew I was faculty. “Quick service.” I took a stab at her name, stupidly. “It’s Tara, right?”
“Mary.” I felt a familiar twinge in my gut. Still, five years later, the name conjured up angst. Mary, my ex, now married to Myron, the cardiologist. The only solace I had was that I was now fifteen hundred miles away from that life. Time had healed me some.
“It’s OK,” Mary said of my lack of recall. “When you and your buddies were in over the holidays watching football, you were having too good a time to remember much. And you have had a lot of students.”
One of my former students, no less. Great image, drunken professor. She gently unwrapped the silverware and without hesitation boldly tucked the napkin into my shirt. “Just so you don’t have an accident like you did last time,” she said.
I looked around to check if the few patrons saw my special treatment. I put my mind on memory rewind. The only thing I recalled of that night two weeks ago was the morning after, soaking the ketchup stain out of the sweater I’d worn. Mystery solved. Mary was privy to my mishap. Again she took off.
She disappeared into the kitchen, hair fixed in a ponytail. A mousy-looking cook stepped out as she went in. He sized up the patron count. Slow for lunch, but it was Tuesday and it was about to snow. He peered up at the TV. Mary stepped back out and joined him.