Welcome to my latest fiction serial, These Hallowed Halls. It’s the sixth in the Operation Quickline series featuring Sid Hackbirn and Lisa Wycherly as counter-espionage agents who have a thing for each other if only they can make their divergent values work out. When we last left them in Sad Lisa, their relationship was at an impasse. Now, they’ve been split up to go undercover at a small arts college in Wisconsin. To start from the beginning, you can click here. Or you can click on the archives here.
I was up by eight that next morning, though not by choice. My sleep had again been shattered by dreams of bright red blood on a wall. I put my running suit on more out of habit than any real expectation that I’d actually run. Fortunately, Fran saved me by knocking on the front door to my apartment and calling out.
“Coming!” I called back right away.
As I went to the door, I realized that her car had not been in the driveway when I’d gotten home the night before. I wondered where she had been.
“Hey,” I said softly. “Come on in.”
“Thanks.” Fran wandered in with a blank look on her face.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Terrible.” Fran sounded as if she were about to break down, but then she pulled herself together. “She was my best friend. I can’t believe that she’s gone. And in such a horrible way. I tell you, when I saw her, I almost upchucked, too.”
“At least, you didn’t.” I felt my face growing hot.
“Anyway, I just got a call from Mrs. Spinetti. All Humanities classes are canceled today, and Joe Cunningham has a faculty meeting scheduled for three o’clock. Dwight Atwater called Joe last night. He also said he’d take care of notifying Eunice’s family.”
“That’s a blessing.”
Fran sat down on the couch. “I just can’t stop wondering who would do such a thing, and all I can think is that it must have had something to do with that mysterious meeting of hers.”
“Did you tell anyone else about it?” I sat down next to her. “I don’t think she told us not to.”
“No.” Fran frowned. “Come to think of it, I didn’t. I thought it was something she wanted to keep between the two of us, maybe some plot to get Joe Cunningham in trouble. I was surprised to see you and Dwight, and then Steve Carmona. Do you think Dwight or Steve may have said something?”
“I did go over to Steve’s for dinner.” I pulled my legs up under me as I thought. “I told him I had to leave early to go to Eunice’s and he said he’d been invited, too. He thought she wanted help with her computer, so I don’t think he would have said anything. He couldn’t figure out why she’d asked me to be there. She told me there were decisions to be made.”
Fran blinked. “That’s what she told me. But what could it mean?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Fran looked me and frowned. “And you and Steve were together the whole evening.”
“Yeah. Come to think of it. What about you?”
“I, as they say, have no alibi.” She sank down into herself, vainly trying not to weep. “I was in my office grading papers. In fact, I waved at Dwight in the parking lot as I got into my car to go over there.”
I reached over and hugged her. “Fran, you had no reason to kill Eunice. I know cops say they need to suspect everybody, but they usually have a fairly good idea of who killed a person. I’m sure they’re making an arrest even now.”
Fran nodded and my stomach gurgled.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t eaten yet. Have you?”
“Come to think of it, no.”
“All right. Why don’t I change clothes real fast and we’ll go get something to eat?”
“I don’t know if I can.”
I sighed and got up. “I know what you mean, but you need to get something on your stomach.”
“You’re probably right.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I drove Fran and we went to a coffee shop near the edge of town. It was part of a national chain and the food wasn’t particularly good, but neither of us wanted to go to Barb’s Diner where we’d eaten with Eunice so many times.
“Why us?” Fran asked as she sipped some coffee and picked at a bowl of fruit.
“What do you mean?” I was busy shoveling in eggs, bacon, toast, and hash browns.
“Why did she invite the four of us? I mean, I’m kind of obvious. We’re best friends. She liked you a lot, even though you’re new. And you’ve been feisty. So, if the meeting was about getting Joe Cunningham, that would make sense. Dwight, she trusts, too. He’s been a good ally over the years. But Steve? Why him? I mean, they’re friends, but it’s mostly about computer stuff.”
“Maybe her little plan had something to do with computers.” I chewed a bit of bacon, thinking and trying not to think. I’d been asking the same questions all the night before and hadn’t come up with anything that made sense. “And why wasn’t Max there? He’s one of her friends.”
“I don’t think she asked him.” Fran frowned. “He didn’t know about the meeting.”
“You talked to him already?”
Fran nervously stabbed a bit of banana. “This morning. He’s pretty upset.”
Her gaze drifted off toward the door, as if she were trying to make sense of something.
“It had to have been what got her killed,” she said, finally. She sniffed then pressed her lips together. “You know, I can’t get her face like that out of my head.”
“I can’t, either.”
“It was so horrible. Dwight took me outside. Steve had to call the police from her bedroom phone because the one in the living room…” Fran swallowed. “It was that cord. It took the cops forever to show, and they’re usually pretty prompt.”
Which meant that Steve had taken his time calling them. No surprise there. I knew he’d done a sweep of the place. I debated calling in a request for the police reports. Terry could do the pick-up. Or maybe Tim. And somebody would have to search the house again. I’d have Kathy do that as soon as the cops were done. At least, she wouldn’t have to worry about Eunice coming home and surprising her.
“What if it was a burglar?” I asked suddenly. “Maybe Eunice surprised somebody breaking into her house and that’s why she was killed. Maybe the meeting didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Fran nodded. “I guess. But what would Eunice have to steal?”
“I don’t know.” And, in truth, I really didn’t. Her floppy disks were gone, but Steve hadn’t said whether anything else was missing. There was also that ampule set up on the switch to the desk lamp. Steve hadn’t said whether it had been sprung.
I picked up the check and we decided we should go to school. I offered to drop Fran off at the apartment house so that she could get her car, but Fran said she’d walk home if I wasn’t ready to go when she was.
“Do you want me to stay with you?” I asked.
“Thanks, Janet. That’s awfully sweet of you. But I think I need some alone time, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I do.”
But we were not to get it. As soon as Fran and I entered Lawrence Hall, Mrs. Spinetti haughtily insisted that we go to the conference room to talk to Sergeant Renecke. Dwight Atwater was already there.
“All right,” said the detective. He was around average height, but built like a bull, with full shoulders and small hips. His blond hair had thinned so much the top of his head shone in the fluorescent lights of the conference room. He wore a tan polyester suit and had laid a yellow vinyl raincoat with a police insignia on it over one of the chairs at the end of the table. He yawned. “I want to talk to the three of you about this meeting Dr. Blakely had set up.”
“I thought you were supposed to interview us separately,” Fran said.
Renecke chuckled. “Usually, but I did that last night. Besides, Dr. Carmona confirmed that you and Dr. Atwater were signed into the university computer system from before the time Dr. Blakely was likely killed.”
“The coroner was able to determine it that fast?” I asked.
“Oh, hell no.” Renecke scratched the back of his neck and sat down. “They can’t pinpoint a time of death like that anyway. Her neighbor talked to her at eight-thirty last night. You found her at ten. You two, Atwater and Mercer, were signed into the computer system until right before ten o’clock. You, Dr. Mayfield, were having dinner with Dr. Carmona. Which means you guys are not suspects and there’s no reason to talk to you separately. Now, about that meeting.”
“But she didn’t tell us anything about it,” Dwight said. He thought. “She did seem a little nervous, maybe worried about something. But I have no idea what it was about.”
“The only thing I can think of was something to get rid of Dr. Cunningham,” Fran said. “Janet and I have been talking it over, and that’s what makes the most sense. Although, I don’t know why she’d want Steve Carmona there, unless her scheme involved the campus computer system.”
“Did any of you tell anyone else about it?” Renecke asked.
“I just told my wife that I was working late,” Dwight said. “She asked about it and I told her that Eunice had something she wanted to discuss with me later. My wife said to tell her hello.”
I nodded. “I only mentioned it to Steve when we were having dinner because I had to get over there, and it turned out he’d been invited, too.”
“And I thought it was about Joe Cunningham,” Fran said. “So, I had no reason to say anything to anyone.”
“About Cunningham.” Renecke said. “There was plenty of bad blood there, and I was told by someone else that Dr. Blakely had made him and some other fellows a little anxious at a faculty meeting the other day.”
Dwight laughed. “Eunice did that on a regular basis.”
“She implied that some of us had committed unnamed indiscretions,” Fran snorted. “Joe, Ernie, and Ted were the ones who reacted.”
“Any of them have a secret worth killing for?” Renecke asked.
I looked at Dwight and Fran, who both shrugged.
“I’ve heard rumors that Ernie is still ABD,” Dwight said. “But to the best of my knowledge, he finished his dissertation several years ago.”
“Could it have been a burglar?” I asked. “Maybe she surprised him.”
Renecke shifted. “We have reason to believe it was not a burglar.” He looked at the three of us, and I got the funny feeling he wanted to tell us about the ampule of KGB nerve agent just to see how we’d react but he couldn’t because, well, that was top secret. “Do you know if Dr. Blakely had any connection to Marina Swanson or Reed Dupont?”
“Who are they?” I asked, even though I knew.
“Those were the two students who died last spring,” Dwight said. “There was some explosion in her car, and I think Dupont got sick suddenly.”
“Well, you must have checked Eunice’s class lists,” Fran said. “Did she have them for any classes?”
“No,” said Renecke. “But they each had a couple classes with Max Beard. Swanson was a Second Career student. Dupont was majoring in drawing and painting with a minor in comp sci.”
“That’s not surprising,” Fran said. “Max usually teaches three sections of lower level history in the spring, and he is fairly popular with the students.”
But Fran did not know what I knew about how those students had really died. Again, I got the feeling from the way Renecke was watching us that he was looking for a reaction that did not belong. I wondered what he knew. I was going to have to call in a request for the police report on Eunice, and probably send a report upline. I hadn’t yet because I hadn’t had anything to report, although Sid had mentioned somewhere that he’d checked in occasionally.
Renecke let us go back to our offices after that. I immediately signed into the computer system and the special bulletin board. Steve had already posted his interview with Renecke, who had asked pretty much the same questions. He had also asked Steve why someone would steal Eunice’s floppy disks. Steve was a little worried that Renecke might getting too close to our investigation, and with good reason. The formula and Max were super top-secret.
I posted what Renecke had told Dwight, Fran, and me, as well as my plans to have Kathy and Tim search Eunice’s place as soon as the cops were done with it, to phone in the request for the police report, and then send a report upline.
I debated adding a thought I’d had as I’d gone back to my office. Eunice’s comment had startled not just Ted, Ernie, and Cunningham. It had also startled Max. Now, if Max was developing the formula, then it would make sense that he’d be worried that Eunice might know what he was up to. But he’d also have the least reason to kill Eunice unless she was the thief. But if she was the thief, and that’s why Max had killed her, why was there a KGB ampule rigged to her desk lamp?
If Joe Cunningham was up to no good, then he’d have a reason to be worried about Eunice’s little joke, especially since Eunice was clearly trying to rid the university of him. But physically, he didn’t seem up to strangling a tall woman like Eunice.
Ted, on the other hand, was big enough and probably strong enough to do the deed, but he had the least reason, as far as I knew. Some fudged data that he had promptly fixed many years ago might make getting tenure a little harder, but hardly insurmountable, and not nearly hard enough to kill someone over it. Plus, he’d told me about it.
If Ernie hadn’t completed his dissertation, letting that out could cause him a lot more trouble. On the other hand, he was so burnt out, he might find getting fired a relief. Or he might fight tooth and nail over it. Killing someone, however, seemed far-fetched.
I got lunch at the Commons more out of desperation than anything else and ate it there. Kathy Richards came by the table and I asked her to contact Tim and search Eunice’s. By the time I got back to Lawrence Hall, it was time for the faculty meeting. I was a little surprised to see Renecke there, sitting quietly in the back of the room.
Ernie was fretting and whining about how terrible it was and none of us were safe in our own beds, and, really, the university needed to do something to ensure the safety of its faculty. Most of the rest of the group was somber with an extra layer of tension enveloping us. Fran’s eyes were reasonably dry, but it didn’t look like that would last. The only two missing were Max and Ted.
Cunningham was nervous, too. But I realized why when he looked directly at me shortly after opening the meeting.
“Losing Eunice has been a significant loss for our department,” Cunningham began sonorously. “However, as I’m sure she would have agreed, life does go on and we do have students to tend to. I have hired an adjunct professor, Dr. Littleton, from UW Madison to take on Eunice’s World History classes. However, there remains Eunice’s Elizabethan England seminar. Janet, I have decided that since your Shakespeare seminar has only eight students, and Eunice’s class has only nine, to combine the two classes. There’s certainly enough overlap with the history, don’t you think? I’m assuming you’re up to the challenge, of course.”
I smiled, trying to think of Shakespearean insults to toss his way.
“Well, one doesn’t want to go rushing into these things,” I said slowly, trying to buy time.
I had two options. I could give him hell and complain to the Provost, which he would interpret as me not being up to it (which I had to concede, I possibly wasn’t), or I could accept the challenge and let him wade in his victory over me. But then a third possibility occurred to me.
“I’d have to re-do the course outline,” I said as if I were thinking aloud. “And you know, the play Titus Andronicus, that’s set in the classical period, and the histories are a little early for the Elizabethan period. I’ve got it. I’ll teach Merry Wives of Windsor instead of Titus. The play is strongly associated with Elizabeth I, which is, I believe, the subject of Eunice’s seminar. What a great idea, interlacing the history of England’s greatest queen with a play by England’s greatest dramatist. Joe, you’re a genius.”
“But, eh… But…” Cunningham gaped.
I noticed several shoulders in the room shaking with suppressed laughter. Sadly, so did Cunningham.
“Janet, we do want to be conscious of maintaining decorum,” he said, finally.
“Of course,” I said. “’If I were disposed to stir your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage, I should do Brutus wrong.’”
Cunningham looked at me strangely. I decided to help him out.
“The second half of Antony’s eulogy over Caesar, act three, scene two,” I said quickly.
“Oh! Of course. Nice quote.”
Still, I didn’t miss the glare he shot my way just before clearing his throat and gathering his notes together.
“We also have the matter of Eunice’s memorial,” Cunningham continued. “I have reserved the campus chapel for a service on Sunday afternoon at two o’clock. I have asked Max Beard to conduct it, as he was Eunice’s good friend.”
Fran blinked and glared at Cunningham.
“Finally, we have as our guest today, Officer Renecke, of the Appleton Police Department. I know that he has talked to several of us already, but I would appreciate it if you all cooperate fully with him.
Odd. Cunningham’s eyes landed on me at that moment. Renecke cleared his throat loudly and stood up.
“First up, I’m Sergeant Peter Renecke,” he said. “I know this murder has come as quite a shock to you all, and I respect that. However, I’m also sure that you want this cleared up as badly as I do. So, if any of you has any information that you think might be relevant, I want you to call me. It’s my job to decide what is relevant and what isn’t. So, even if you only think you saw or heard something, I want to know about it. Thank you for your time. Dr. Cunningham?”
“I think that will be all for today. Let us adjourn the meeting.” Cunningham all but ran from the room. The others filed out, but Dwight patted my shoulder, then Fran gave me a hug.
I noticed Renecke watching me and waited.
“Julius Caesar, right?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m teaching it this quarter.”
“Yeah. I heard there was a dust up between you and Cunningham over that.”
I pressed my lips together. “He took over my class and I had to file a complaint with the Provost.”
Renecke nodded. “He’s not the one who’s dead.”
“I know.” I shut my eyes to keep from crying.
“Good thing. I’d have to be looking more closely at you.” Renecke laughed. “So why the fireworks between you two?”
I shrugged. “He’s into power games? I also heard that the Chancellor hired me over his head, which probably didn’t help.”
“You were friends with Eunice Blakely.”
“I was.” I blinked again and a couple tears escaped after all. “I didn’t know her very long, but I’d really come to love her.”
“I’m hearing that you’re the odds-on favorite to take up her mantle in the fight against Cunningham.”
“I have nothing personal against Joe Cunningham per se,” I said. “I just don’t like bull puckey.”
“And he’s full of it.” Renecke laughed again. “By the way, the quote?”
“Yeah, from the ‘Friends, Romans, and Countryman’ speech.”
“‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.’”
I found myself smiling. “Very good.”
“Funny what sticks with you.” He shrugged. “It’s been a while since I was in high school, but I seem to remember that speech was about Marc Antony turning everybody against Brutus.”
“So that line you quoted, even though he’s saying he doesn’t want to do Brutus wrong, that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Renecke nodded at the door. “You think Cunningham got that?”
“I have no idea.” I looked at the door through which Cunningham had fled. “I’ll try to be charitable and say he did.”
“He and Dr. Blakely did not get along.”
“Eunice ran circles around him. She wasn’t about to put up with his nonsense, and, surprise, surprise, he didn’t deal with that well.”
“Hm.” He, too, looked out the door thoughtfully.
“You don’t think…?”
“There’s some other stuff.” He looked at me. “I can’t talk about an open investigation.” He patted my shoulder. “But thanks for talking to me.”
He walked out the door.
I didn’t want to assume. As I had told Tim Hannaford however long ago, assumptions can get you dead in no time. However, I had pointed out that instinct does have a place, and at that moment, my gut instinct was screaming that Renecke liked Joe Cunningham for the murder. If he liked Cunningham, there had to be a reason, perhaps one I should be looking for, as well.
I went back to my office. It looked like everyone, including Ted, had gone home. I got my leather gloves and searched Eunice’s office. It was relatively easy, as the lights had been left on. There was nothing there I wouldn’t expect, although I did pull her syllabus and notes for her Elizabethan seminar. She had several floppy disks for her computer, all neatly labeled, but all of them were related to coursework or journal articles. I took them just in case. The only odd thing I found was a copy of a Leticia Petrie novel. The interior had been marked up heavily, but not in any way that made immediate sense to me. I took it, too, and left the office, turning out the lights as I did.