RHAPSODY IN RED
Book I of The Preston Barclay Mysteries Series
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence?
Why rushed the discords in but that harmony should be prized?—Browning
“Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die;
for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God.”—Revelation 3:2
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 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 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 blond 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.” I struggle with them every moment of my waking life.
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 pressed 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 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. 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.” 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.
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. “I’ve heard 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 took care 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. Professor’s folly, Faith used to call it. When I stood, Professor Thorn tensed like an animal at bay. She snatched a cell phone from her pocket and poised her fingers above the buttons.
What was she going to do, dial 911? 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. 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 the giant pair of tongs a blacksmith would use to crush anvils. She buried her head on my shoulder and wept.
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, and scattered drops of blood 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.
Still weeping, she gave it to me. Somewhere in the building a window banged open and a blast of winter 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 from my life before I became a professor.
I dialed 911 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 obligato to a John Philip Sousa march.
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Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. Now retired from college teaching, he writes suspense and mystery fiction as well as literary poetry designed for the ordinary reader. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences and study groups. He lives near Houston, TX, where he continues to write fiction, poetry, and essays on ethics and U.S. foreign policy.