As I was leaving for work I received a text ordering me to report to the Chair, ASAP. Crap! Just great! Commings was someone I tried to avoid.
I entered Commings’s office and saw my arch-enemy, James Fredricks. Commings fiddled with some papers and said, “I’m glad you stopped by, Dave.” As if I had a choice.
He smirked and added, “I was just congratulating James on getting his latest paper published and informing him his promotion to full professor was approved. Unfortunately, your promotion wasn’t. I wanted you to hear it from me before it became common knowledge.”
Fredricks came over, put his arm around me, and said, “Better luck next year, old boy. I guess the board didn’t want two promotions in the same department.”
I resisted the temptation to knee Fredricks in the nuts. He would’ve kicked my ass. For once I couldn’t think of a smartass comeback. I stomped out not saying a word, fantasizing about grabbing Commings’s letter opener and plunging it into Fredricks’s heart. As I closed the door I could hear them laughing. It was tempting to charge back and try for the letter opener, but I knew it wouldn’t work. The letter opener was metal. To slay Fredricks I’d need a wooden stake.
That was the start of a seriously shitty day. An email informed me a paper I’d submitted was rejected. Ten minutes into an exam my best student came to me and said, “Professor, I can’t get started on problem one. Can you give me a hint?” The problem was supposed to be easy. I looked at it and saw I’d made a careless mistake, changing it from trivial to impossible.
The low point occurred as I was leaving for home. My girlfriend, Rachel, told me she’d been denied tenure. I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. Rachel would be fine. As a female computer scientist she’d be heavily in demand. However, she’d have to move. I’d been planning to ask her to marry me.
Finally something good happened. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, was waiting in my apartment.
“After the day I’ve had, I’m really glad to see you,” I said as we hugged. “Weren’t you going to spend the night with your mother?”
“Shithead is coming over.”
“Shithead” was Hannah’s name for Fredricks. Not only was he making my life miserable at work, he was the current beau of Grace, my ex.
“Yeah, he’s a jerk,” I said. “Avoid him. He just wants to sleep with Grace.”
“If that was it, I wouldn’t have a problem.” She shuddered. “He never misses a chance to touch me or walk into my room when I’m not dressed. It started when we went to Rio over Christmas break. He insisted we go to a topless beach. It’s too creepy having my mother’s boyfriend staring at my boobs. You’d think he’d be happy with Mom. Even if she is forty-one, she’s really hot.”
In Hannah’s mind anyone over forty should start looking at walkers if not wheelchairs.
The next morning, as I walked by Fredricks’ office, I heard his voice and saw red. I barged in, leaned over his desk, and shouted, “Listen Fredricks, you pervert, what you and Grace do is your business, but you keep your hands off my daughter! I don’t care how big you are! If I hear you’ve been copping feels from my kid, I’ll make you regret it!”
Fredricks bolted out of his chair, pushed me away, and yelled, “Keep your greasy hands off my desk! Your slut of a daughter comes on to me! Every time I go there she parades around in next to nothing and misses no opportunity to rub against me.”
I pushed him back and said, “I’m warning you, Fredricks! Touch Hannah again and I’ll take you down!”
“Like you could,” Fredricks said with a sneer. He punched me high on my cheek.
My glasses went flying, I stumbled back, hit the wall, and slid down on my ass. Fredericks started towards me looking as if he were going to finish me off for good. Josh Kalinski stepped between us.
Meredith Motin and Dustin Stevens came out of their offices across the hall to investigate. Stevens saw me sitting on the floor, my glasses in the corner, and a red mark on my face. He leered with an obnoxious grin. Motin helped me to my feet and said, “C’mon, Dave. Let’s go to your office.”
Motin has been an unofficial mentor for me even though she has troubles of her own. Her husband has ALS.
Late the following afternoon I got a call from Grace. Fredricks hadn’t showed for a date and wasn’t answering his phone. She asked if I’d check to see if he was in his office. I grudgingly agreed.
I knocked on his door and called, “Fredricks? You there?”
No answer, but the door swung open. It was dark. I flicked on the lights. I saw a foot sticking out from behind the desk. Fredricks lay on his back in a pool of blood with two bullet holes in his chest.
I raced to the men’s room, bent over the toilet, and barfed. Finally, after I’d been reduced to dry heaves, I was able to collect myself. I got shakily to my feet and called 9-1-1.
The cops, headed by Sergeant Gregory Williams, grilled me for about two hours, before letting me go. I wondered how buffoon like Williams got to be a Sergeant.
A few days later I found Williams in my office. “The secretary let me in,” he said.
“That’s good,” I said as I removed my coat. “For a moment I thought I had an intruder. I was about to call the police.”
I should learn not to make wiseass cracks to Williams, but he’s such a schmuck he brings out the worst in me.
Williams turned red. “I’ve had enough of your smart remarks,” he yelled. “You listen to me, and you listen good. I’ve…”
I started to laugh. “Did you really say ‘You listen and you listen good?’ You’ve been watching too much television.”
“You think you’re so clever,” Williams spat out. “You won’t be laughing when you’re charged with murder. You’re our number one suspect, and you’re way ahead of anybody else. I’ll tell you what we’ve got on you. Maybe you’ll make things easy on yourself, and confess.”
“Once again with TV lines,” I said. I hung up my coat and sat. “In police shows a cop says, ‘Make things easy on yourself and tell us how you did it.’ Does anybody in real life say that? In my case, since I didn’t commit the murder, of course I won’t confess. If I had done it, I’d be an idiot to admit it. That’d make things easy for you, not me. But certainly, go ahead, tell me what you have on me.”
“First,” Williams said, holding up a finger. “You resented Fredricks. He was hired after you, and surpassed you professionally.”
“Other people have started after I did and outpaced me. Am I preparing to murder them all or am I being selective?”
“By itself it’s not enough,” admitted Williams, “With everything else it’s just one more nail in your coffin.” Another finger. “Second. He kept rubbing your face in the fact he outdid you.”
“That makes him an asshole, not a candidate for murder.”
Williams added finger three. “Third. He took your wife away.”
“He didn’t take her away. We’d split long before she started dating him. He’s just one of a long list of men she’s screwed.”
With a contemptuous smile, he said, “Not how she tells it. They were doing the deed while you were still married.” He barked out a laugh and taunted, “Fredricks was having sex with her for years. That’d make you really want to kill him. For all we know he could be your daughter’s father.”
“Hannah was conceived while we were living in Rhode Island. Fredricks was just starting graduate school in Michigan. He didn’t meet Grace until he took the job here.”
“Fourth,” Williams said, raising the next finger. “He kept saying how he was sexually better than you. An insult to your manhood.”
“He claimed he was more proficient in the sack than I am. That doesn’t make it true. The only woman who’s had sex with both of us is Grace. Did you get an affidavit from her?”
“Fifth,” Williams said, ignoring my response. “He was making moves on your kid and you resented it. I have this from several sources, including her. I have to admit, it does make him a pedophile, but that’s no reason to murder him.”
I was surprised Williams knew what “pedophile” meant. He had me, though, with reason five. If I’d witnessed Fredricks making inappropriate advances on Hannah, I would’ve gladly murdered him. However, I couldn’t let Williams know he’d gotten to me.
“You just said you thought he was Hannah’s father,” I reminded him. “Would he put moves on his own daughter? If he’s that much of a sleaze, he deserves to be dead.”
“He might not have known she was his kid,” Williams responded. “But I agree. Given the time element, it’s unlikely she is. Sixth. You stormed into his office, challenged him to a fight, and threatened him with bodily harm. You said him being bigger than you wouldn’t help. He beat the crap out of you. That’s when you decided to shoot him.”
His facts were a little garbled, but I had threatened Fredricks. I felt I needed to reply to each of his points, so I said, “True, I barged into his office. I didn’t challenge him to a fight. I told him to keep his perverted hands off my daughter. He only punched me once before colleagues intervened.”
“Seventh. Fredricks made up the teaching schedules and gave you a terrible schedule.”
“A flimsy reason for murder, if I ever heard one.”
“I’ve seen people commit murder for two dollars.”
I doubted the two dollar claim. I didn’t doubt it occurred, just that Williams, a small-town cop, had seen it happen. It sounded like another TV line.
“Eighth,” Williams went on. “From what I found out from members of your department, Fredricks was the primary reason your promotion was denied. You had to know he was behind it.”
“I don’t care that much about rank,” I lied. “My job would be pretty much the same anyway.”
“That brings us to ninth,” Williams said, holding his hands up with all fingers and thumbs raised but one. “Fredricks got your sweetie fired. This might mean she was in on it, so we’re looking at her too.”
“She’s already had feelers from other schools, all of which offered her more money than she’s getting here. Fredricks did her a favor.” I exaggerated by saying she already had offers, but I wanted to deflect him from Rachel.
As he headed toward the door, he said “Well then this reason might not apply to her, which means you acted on your own. Even if she’ll be better off, she’ll be leaving you. You wouldn’t like that. Except for the ones about him molesting your daughter and beating you up, no one of the other reasons would be enough, but when you take all of them together, the evidence is overwhelming. You watch your back. We’ll be on you like white on rice. It won’t be long before we nail your butt to the wall.”
Evidently he was a member of the “no cliché left behind” school.
I needed a lawyer. I hired Marissa Shea and met with her and her investigator, Elise Conway.
Conway and I called on Grace. As she opened the door, I stormed in and shouted, “How could you bring Hannah to Rio with Fredricks and go to a topless beach?”
She snickered and said, “I didn’t bring him. He brought us.”
That stopped me cold. Grace’s father is richer than Croesus. Anytime Grace wanted anything, she charged it and Daddy paid. It was a contentious point while we were married, though the main cause of the divorce was her philandering.
“First class?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said as if there were any other way.
“Who paid for the room?”
“He rented the penthouse suite.”
“Did you wonder how he could afford it?” Conway asked.
“I didn’t think about it,” Grace replied. Affording something was never an issue with her.
“You saw nothing wrong with bringing Hannah to a topless beach?” I asked through clenched teeth, my hands balled into fists.
“Grow up!” she exclaimed, but flushed. “She’s not a little kid anymore. She’s let Billy see her topless. There were lots of girls there her age… Besides, I was probably stoned.”
Billy was Hannah’s boyfriend. I was too pissed to realize Fredricks casually paid for a vacation I never could’ve afforded, but Conway wasn’t.
“Did Fredricks routinely supply drugs?” Conway asked.
“Yeah,” Grace replied and shrugged. “So what? A little coke or weed never hurt anyone.”
“Did he supply it to your friends?”
“He sold it to them,” Grace clarified. “He wouldn’t just give the stuff away. Except to me.”
“Do you know who his supplier was?”
“Of course not! How would… oh, wait.”
“What?” Conway asked. She move forward, intruding on Grace’s space.
“Well,” Grace said as she backed up until she bumped into a wall. “One time we were out with Megan and Brett. James didn’t have something Megan wanted. We were passing the math department, and he stopped. He said, ‘Let me see if my fearless leader has it.’ He ran in, and two minutes later came out with the stuff.”
As we were leaving, I asked, “Was anything accomplished?”
“You bet,” Conway said.
“Fredricks was spending too much for someone on a math professor’s salary. The money came from dealing drugs. He was working for someone in your department. You tell me. Who?”
I thought briefly before saying, “It’d be a full professor. Fredricks wouldn’t take orders from an inferior. Could this be enough to get me off the hook? Reasonable doubt?”
“We can’t prove it. In court Grace wouldn’t admit she’s using. We need to find this X factor.”
We went to my apartment and met with Shea and Rachel. Hannah was also there. Shea asked me to describe the full professors in the department.
“There’s four,” I said. “Brad Commings, the Chair, Meredith Motin, Josh Kalinski, and Dustin Stevens.”
“What can you tell me about them?”
“Stevens dislikes me intensely. He’s an Evangelical Christian type who wants to ‘save my soul’ by getting me to convert. He resented it when I told him if he didn’t stop proselytizing I’d file a formal complaint. I’ve also made remarks he might’ve interpreted as defamatory.”
“Is he the most likely X?”
“I think so. The sanctimonious son-of-a-bitch is just the type to play the God angle and pull something like this. Besides, the prick drives a new Mercedes SUV. It had to cost mucho bucks.”
“Commings,” Rachel said. “His office has a large, walk-in closet. X needs a location for storing drugs. Commings has one.”
“Has Commings shown any indication of spending too much?” Conway asked.
“He doesn’t flaunt it the way Fredricks did,” I said. “He doesn’t live like a pauper either. Of course his pay as a full professor with more than thirty years experience is probably over $100,000, plus, as department chair, his summer stipend would be another two-ninths of his regular year salary.”
“What about the others?” Shea asked.
“Josh Kalinski has a summer home and a boat on Lake Ontario. It’s a cabin cruiser so it wasn’t cheap. Grace and I were invited there a couple of times while we were married. He told me he’s planning to buy a home in Florida after he retires, and possibly another boat.”
“Any indication where the money is coming from?” Shea asked. “He’s clearly spending more than his salary. Why isn’t he your leading suspect?”
“Partly because I like Josh,” I admitted. “Also his wife has family money.”
“He might want funds of his own,” Conway said. “We can’t discount him. Next?”
“Meredith Motin,” I said. “She doesn’t spend much money. Her husband has ALS and needs constant care. Even with health insurance, she’ll have out of pocket expenses.”
“Meredith has a ruthless streak,” Rachel remarked. “It comes out occasionally. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Remember how she tore apart what’s-his-face from the sociology department, when he made that ridiculous proposal at the general faculty meeting?”
I grinned at the memory. “I forgot about that. Meredith is soft spoken, but she has a spine of steel.”
“I have an idea,” Rachel said. “There’s big money here. Nobody can keep track of everything in their heads. X is probably using computer files. The office computers are connected in a wireless network. I can hack into them.”
“Really?” Conway asked, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah,” Rachel replied with a fiendish grin. “I have a Ph.D. in computer science. I worked in industry, specializing in network security. Unless there’s really tight encryption or a strong firewall I can get in. At the least I can narrow down the list.”
“As an officer of the court, I can’t condone committing a criminal act,” Shea said. She grinned. “Assuming we’re speaking hypothetically, when would you do this?”
Rachel chuckled. “Some people don’t lock their offices during the day. Tomorrow I’ll sneak into various offices and install software on their computers. They’ll never know. I wouldn’t want to do the main hacking job when anyone else is in the building, so tomorrow evening, late, would be a good time. It probably won’t make much difference, but I want to do this from Dave’s office. It’s right next to the closet containing the router.”
“I should be there in case somebody comes in the building,” I said. “Hannah has a hockey game. I’ll drop her off…”
“The hell you’ll drop Hannah off!” Hannah exclaimed as she jumped to her feet. “I’m coming with you!”
“Honey, it’ll be late. There’s nothing to do except watch Rachel.”
“Tomorrow is Friday. Being late isn’t an issue.”
She had that mutinous look teenagers get, so I gave in. What harm could it do?
It was after 10:00 PM when Hannah, Conway, Rachel, and I arrived at my office. Rachel said she’d been able to plant software only on Kalinski’s computer. A cursory inspection showed nothing suspicious. Using her laptop, Rachel set up a download to an external hard drive.
“Try Stevens next,” I suggested. “I still think the prick is X.”
Rachel used my computer to hack into Stevens’s computer. It was more difficult, since she hadn’t been able to plant software on it. I wondered if Hannah regretted insisting on coming along. Then Rachel announced, “I’m in!”
Files related to Stevens’s coursework were neither encrypted nor password protected, but there was a folder that was protected. After Rachel got around the password, we saw several of the files in the folder were spreadsheets with financial data.
When I saw that, I said, “I knew he was the one!”
“Don’t be too sure,” Rachel said as she opened one of the files. “This looks like it’s connected to his church. He’s a deacon or something, and church members are sending him money.”
“Some of which he may have used to get himself a Mercedes,” Conway said, and laughed. “It’s possible he is a low life, bilking his church members, but he may not be our low life.”
“There’s a lot there we haven’t identified yet,” I said, stubbornly. “He could be like one of those televangelist cretins and still be a drug dealer.”
Rachel set up a download for the files in that folder.
While the download from Stevens’s computer was going on, the download of Kalinski’s files ended. Rachel used her laptop to hack into Motin’s computer. After about ten minutes, Rachel said she was in.
A short time later Rachel said, “That’s strange. Look at this.”
We all crowded around my desk, even Hannah, who’d been putting tape on the handle of her hockey stick. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Most of her files are unprotected,” Rachel said, “But there’s a folder containing some strange files, some of which are associated with health care and finances. The latter are password protected. I was able to get around one of the passwords.”
“Her husband has ALS,” I reminded Rachel. “She has expenses related to his care. That’s probably what those are for.”
“I know,” Rachel said, “But why password protect only them? And wouldn’t most of the financial end be covered by health insurance?”
“Not when it runs out,” Motin said. She walked into my office brandishing a gun. “I was in my office when I saw someone was hacking into my computer. I figured I’d find the hacker in this room, and it appears I’m right.”
“Meredith,” I said in disbelief. “You’re the one who’s behind the drug deals and the murder? Why?”
“The ‘why’ should be obvious. Harry needs a lot of care. Our health insurance company, the bastards, won’t pay. Even if I could’ve taken the insurance company to court and won, it would’ve taken years, and what would’ve happened to Harry in the meantime? Through a former student I stumbled on this drug deal at about the same time I found I needed the money. The drug money covered the cost of Harry’s care, even the experimental stuff, plus a little more for a rainy day. Everything was going great until Fredricks became insatiable. I had to remove him. I knew you’d be a suspect because of the animosity between you and James. Especially after he cleaned your clock. I told the cops about those threats you made. I was planning to let the police either arrest you or not, but once you started digging, I was afraid you’d find out too much. DON’T ANY OF YOU MOVE!” The last statement came as we tried to edge apart.
Motin was planning to kill us, and we’d done her a favor by bunching. She’d been holding it in for a long time, however, and welcomed the opportunity to tell about it. I wanted to keep her talking in the faint hope she’d momentarily get distracted and Conway could make a move. If it appeared she was about to shoot, I planned to jump at her. She didn’t know Conway’s capabilities, so she probably regarded me, the only male, as her biggest threat. She’d aim at me first. If I distracted her, maybe Conway could shoot her before she could shoot Hannah or Rachel. Maybe if I got shot, it wouldn’t be fatal.
“How did Fredricks get involved?” I asked.
“I was looking for a partner. I wanted to stay behind the scenes. I needed someone in our department so the meetings wouldn’t be noticeable. I couldn’t take one of the junior faculty. They might not stay. I considered you, David, but you were married to Grace. Money would have little appeal for you, and in any case you were too straight-laced. Josh’s wife is richer even than Grace. I knew Dustin liked money, but he’s a religious fruitcake. I’d never know if at some point Jesus would tell him to go to the police. Fredricks was perfect. He was greedy, on tenure, and had no scruples. Then he became piggish.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was worse than avaricious, he was stupid. He was spending too much money. The IRS might notice. I tried to warn him, but he wouldn’t listen. If he got arrested he’d certainly give me up in a plea deal. I’d been thinking about removing him for a while, but if I did, it could lead to another problem.”
“What?” I asked, puzzled.
She snickered and said, “I wanted Commings to continue as Chair. The position would make me too visible. I had to appear willing to take it, but not get it. So I voted against Rachel for tenure.”
“You voted against me?” Rachel said. She was livid. “After all the support I gave you!”
“I see you’re surprised,” Motin said with a wicked grin. “It was a secret ballot. No one knew. I hated to do it, but if Fredricks was removed and Rachel got tenure, I’d have too many votes for Chair. I knew Stevens, Commings, and Fredricks would vote against you, Rachel, because of your connection to David. It would only take one more vote to kill tenure for you. Anyway, back to Fredricks. Not only was he spending too much money, it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to take over. I’d stupidly given him Eduardo’s contact information. He called Eduardo and tried to make a deal for himself. Eduardo knew Fredricks wasn’t stable enough to run the operation. He called me and told me to take care of it. I did.”
The distraction, when it happened, came from an unexpected source. Sergeant Williams burst into my office with his gun out, shouting, “I’ve got you now, you low-life, murdering, drug-dealing, scumbag!”
Williams was referring to me. He probably thought he’d caught me with my entire cabal. Motin, however, saw a policeman with a gun yelling about a murdering drug dealer. She undoubtedly thought he meant her. She swiveled and shot Williams.
As soon as Motin turned her gun away from us, Conway made her move, but she wasn’t fast enough. Before Conway could do anything, Hannah brought her hockey stick down on Motin’s gun wrist in a vicious, overhand chop that shattered her wrist bones. In the NHL Hannah would’ve been assessed a match penalty.
Motin screamed and dropped the gun. Hannah used her stick to knock it away, but Motin was in too much pain to go for it anyway. Rachel picked up my phone and dialed 9-1-1. Conway went to see if she could do anything for Williams, but it was too late. Motin’s shot was dead center in the chest. No vest.
I grasped Motin by the shoulders and pulled her down into a chair. I needn’t have been concerned. She was doing nothing but wailing in pain.
“Two minutes for slashing, Babe,” I said to Hannah.
“It’s only ninety seconds in my league, Pops,” she responded.