Requiem for Ashes
“Albert is one of my all-time favorite sleuths.” New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen
“…shines with comic brilliance. Crossman has a gift for creating characters…who should show up in further adventures of Albert. And there should be more.” Chicago Sun-Times
“If you have ever aspired to be a private detective, here is some hilarious inspiration. Crossman’s delightfully offbeat tale of wacky academic politics contains a host of bizarre characters and an inexplicable homicide. Albert is indeed a unique, likeable operative. I certainly look forward to an encore.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Nothing made sense to Albert. Why would anyone want to kill Professor Glenly because of Etruscans? Why did everyone think Tewksbury had done it? And why did the cassette recorder stop working when you spilled beer on it?
Albert didn’t think like most people. He never understood how they could spout their age, or weight, or Social Security Number off the top of their head without looking it up somewhere.
All Albert knew was music.
The orbit of his tiny, coffee-stained universe was elliptical and only rarely collided with the conventional world, generally in the vicinity of a Dunkin’ Donuts. Still, he couldn’t understand why the police failed to grasp the logic of his argument: Tewksbury had just quit smoking. You don’t quit smoking if you’re planning to kill someone – even a history professor.
Like a musical pinball, Albert is buffeted through the sinister underbelly of academe, a world ruled by lust, greed, and twisted envy, whose existence he’d never imagined, and in which he is an unwanted stranger. If only he could put a face on the figure in the shadows. If only he could cover up the burn mark on his cheek and thigh. If only Detective Naples would stop asking him questions. If only someone would stop trying to kill him. If only someone would explain … everything.
Requiem for Ashes
by David A. Crossman
ooooAlbert ignored the knocking. He exhaled a cloud of smoke through his nose and tucked the cigarette behind his ear. His yellowed fingers stuttered nervously across the staff in a race to keep up with the sounds in his brain. Dots, bars, and flags appeared over the heads of the notes like an Impressionist’s drawing of a Memorial Day parade.
ooooFrom behind his thick horn-rimmed glasses his black eyes stared into the soul of the scribblings, filling the room with music.
ooooThe knocking came again. It wasn’t until he’d twice written the contrapuntal triplet into the cello line that he realized someone was at the door. The triplet worked; he left it.
ooooHe removed the cigarette from behind his ear, where it had singed a few hairs, and dowsed it in an inch or so of congealed coffee at the bottom of a cup; one of many that littered the room. The odor of burning hair had the effect of smelling salts.
ooooHe answered the door.
oooo“Your head’s on fire,” said Dr. Tewksbury, letting himself in.
oooo“Oh. I was working. I was just . . . ”
oooo“Did you hear about Glenly?” Tewksbury – Professor of History, Head of the Archaeology Department, Honorary Senior Research Fellow of University College, London and one of colleagues of whose existence Albert was hazily aware – entered the room with his titular entourage as music gave way to archaeology and closed the door on the World Outside.
oooo“Glenly?” Albert echoed. He was struggling to keep from forgetting the next two measures. If only he hadn’t spilled beer on the tape recorder. They said that’s why it didn’t work anymore, though he couldn’t see what one thing had to do with the other.
ooooIf only Tewksbury hadn’t chosen this particular time to unburden himself of gossip. “I don’t know . . . “
oooo“You must,” said Tewksbury. He dropped his Irish walking hat on the white plaster bust of Rimsky-Korsakoff and sat down. Albert wasn’t offended. The bust had been a gift from one of his classes and he didn’t know who it was any more than he knew who was behind any of the awards he’d been given over the years; little golden statues with their hands in the air, strange contortions of clear plastic on heavy black bases, plaques with records you couldn’t even play. He’d tried. Fortunately the school took most of them off his hands. Except the one he prized, a little bronze disc with somebody’s face on it. It made a good coaster and comprised his one concession to housekeeping. There was a blue-and-gold ribbon attached to it which made it easy to find amidst the rubble of his room.
ooooTo Albert, people were objects that confused and complicated life. He didn’t understand them, and didn’t really care to. Music was his refuge, the sword and buckler with which he held the World at bay.
oooo“Justin Glenly,” said Tewksbury. “Middle Ages and Classical Languages.”
oooo“Middle Ages,” Albert echoed again. Long experience had taught him echoing things made people think he was listening, and that’s all they really wanted; the tactic left his mind free to dwell on music. Most of the time it worked, but Tewksbury seemed determined to make this a two-way conversation.
ooooThe bucket hit bottom. “Dead?” said Albert, not echoing, but exclaiming. “What do you mean?”
oooo“Dead. As in ‘as a doornail’ . . . or duck. Take your pick. They found him in his office.”
ooooGlenly. The name prompted a memory. “He’s the one you had the fight with.”
oooo“An ‘altercation’ is the academic term, Albert.” Tewksbury dug through the darkened interior of Albert’s refrigerator. “We just happened to altercate to the point of a sprained wrist and a bloody nose. Don’t you have any St. Pauli Girl?”
ooooAlbert, still operating in a fog, suspended a sextuplet of dead Professor Glenlys in their proper places on his mental staff and rummaged through a heap of laundry on the kitchen table. He disinterred a six-pack and handed it to his visitor. “It’s warm.” He brushed the clothes from the table and gestured Tewksbury to take a seat. “Dead?”
oooo“Heart attack, apparently. As if he had one.”
ooooAlbert studied the free-form layer of smoke in the air. This was the kind of news about which he should be very concerned.
oooo“Heart attack,” he mouthed.
oooo“He was only forty-eight or forty-nine. Less than fifty, anyway.”
ooooAlbert lowered the last of Glenlys half a step to a B flat. “B flat . . . “
oooo“Oh, nothing. Forty-eight?”
ooooAs host, it was Albert’s duty to pick up the conversation when it lapsed, which it did now. What could he say? “What was it you fought about?”
oooo“You don’t remember? That’s what you get for living like a mole, Albert. It was the talk of the campus. My paper on the Etruscans.” These few words were meant to crystallize the subject, a state of mind Albert’s expression did not reflect.
oooo“Steidigger’s funerary finds in Tuscany last summer? Conclusive proof that they evolved from the native population.”
ooooAlbert wondered why they would do that. “Who did?”
oooo“The Etruscans,” Tewksbury snapped. “Wake up and smell the coffee.”
oooo“Etruscans,” Albert replied in a whisper. “Oh, yes.”
oooo“’Yes,’ my aunt Fanny’s foot. You wouldn’t know an Etruscan from a Pekinese.” Accepting this, Tewksbury proceeded to elucidate. “There’s always been a debate about their origins.”
ooooAlbert declined the impulse to point out that the statement was unsupportable. Assuming Etruscans hadn’t been present at Creation, there couldn’t ‘always’ have been a debate. “Oh.”
oooo“Some think they were autochthonous.”
ooooThe word raised Albert’s left eyebrow.
oooo“Native,” Tewksbury explained. “Indigenous.”
ooooAlbert’s eyebrow settled back into its autochthonous position.
oooo“Others side with Herodotus, who says they came from the Aegean . . . Asia Minor . . . one of the waves of Sea Peoples who were making a nuisance of themselves all over the eastern Mediterranean at the time.”
oooo“Does it make a difference?” asked Albert. All the while his hands had been combing his apparel in search of a cigarette. One was finally extracted from his shirt cuff. The search for matches extended to a nearby pile of sheet music that cascaded to the floor at his touch and stayed there. “That was a long time ago.” With a subconscious cock of the eyebrow Glenly the Sixth was reinstated as a B natural.
oooo“Archaeology tends in that direction,” said Tewksbury, his derisive tone absorbed entirely by the clutter. “Of course is makes a difference. I published a paper supporting the ‘native people’ theory. It appeared in the CVA, remember?”
ooooAlbert lit the cigarette. “CVA. Yes.”
oooo“The Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Albert – organ of the Union Academique Internationale?”
ooooMaking a listening noise, Albert found a fingernail that hadn’t been bitten in a while and bit it and wondered silently what organs had to do with archaeology. The danger in asking the question, though, was that Tewksbury might be prompted to answer, and Albert’s ears were filling too rapidly as it was.
ooooTewksbury shook his head in exasperation. “Glenly refuted it in the Journal of Archaeology.” Mention of the affront disinterred Tewksbury’s academic indignation. “A professor of classical languages refuting me in print about Etruscans!
oooo“He selected some arbitrary facts, entirely out of context, and contorted them into evidence suggesting they were Canaanites. Canaanites! The overflow of those squeezed out of the Fertile Crescent by the Sea Peoples; the flotsam that Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Akko couldn’t accommodate!
oooo“As if that wasn’t enough, he based all these archaeological gymnastics upon a totally fatuous connection with Mari religious practices! Of course, he disregarded the inconvenience presented by the fact that the Mari empire had been dead and gone over a thousand years by that time. Then there’s the trifling problem of the singularity of the Etruscan language. Bah! And he called himself a scholar! Mari!
oooo“They might as easily have come from Cleveland.” He crushed the can, even though it was still half full. He reacted quickly, so the beer fell harmlessly to the carpet where it wouldn’t be noticed.
oooo“He wanted my slot.”
oooo“Archaeology?” said Albert. It was time he said something.
oooo“Not the chairmanship. Too much administration for the likes of him. No. He wanted Ancient History. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern,” Tewksbury amended. “Coveted it. Of course the man wouldn’t know a Sumerian from a Scythian.” Tewksbury slammed the dented can into Albert’s laundry. “He was trying to make points with that paper; create a controversy, make a fool of me.
oooo“That’s what scholarship’s come to these days, Albert, all about generating some kind of controversy that will resonate among the unwashed, get them clamoring. That’s when the foundations take notice and apply a little oil to the rusty hinges on their purses. Scholarship be damned.
oooo“He expected to get a lot of mileage by advancing an unprovable hypothesis. Don’t be surprised.” Albert wasn’t surprised; he hadn’t the vaguest idea what Tewksbury was talking about. “It’s not that uncommon. Mind you, he never expected to be proven wrong.”
oooo“That’s what you fought about?”
oooo“That’s when it started.” Tewksbury, a reformed smoker, was one of those people who fanned the air flamboyantly in the presence of smoke . . . held his breath and pointed to “No Smoking” signs and tattled to headwaiters. Theatrics were wasted on Albert. “What really got me, though, was that some people in the community . . . respected archaeologists . . . were treating his conjectural . . . ejaculations . . . as if they constituted serious scholarship! I couldn’t believe it!”
oooo“So you fought?”
oooo“Not at the time. That was a while ago,” said Tewksbury. “Ancient History.” He snorted as if he’d made a joke.
ooooPeople were always doing that. Albert knew they expected him to laugh, but it was a response he was unable to manufacture at will.
ooooSome stale popcorn had dropped from the table onto Tewksbury’s trousers. He brushed it away. “I decided to ignore him. Figured anything less would have dignified his . . . warblings. But I knew, because the public had taken notice – however sheathed in ignorance – Administration had taken notice. That’s what they do.”
oooo“So you fought?” Albert restated. It had worked once. The triplets were being a nuisance. They changed the whole texture of the composition.
oooo“It came to a head month before last. I could only take so much, after all. It was like having somebody stick pins in me every time we met. There’s a limit.”
oooo“So you hit him?” It was a variation on a theme.
oooo“In the hallway outside Administration.”
oooo“And now that he’s dead, you’re sorry?”
ooooTewksbury was thinking about bumming a cigarette. He was nervous. “Hardly. I haven’t seen him since the Steidigger Paper was published. I hardly had time to launch the first volley in my gloat campaign.” Tewksbury interpreted a twitch of Albert’s eyebrows as a sign of interest. “Just a letter.” He winced. “I really let him have it. Even went to the thesaurus for some really despicable adjectives.”
oooo“And you mailed it?” Albert was on auto-pilot, dropping comments into conversational openings at appropriate intervals. He pretended to doodle on a paper bag. What if he made them eighth notes with a dotted whole?
ooooA cigarette protruded from a discarded pack under some papers. Tewksbury’s eyes kept wandering to it. He loosened his tie. “Yes, I did. Together with a copy of the Steidigger Paper. That’s what worries me.”
ooooAlbert stopped doodling. “What? You think the letter gave him a heart attack?”
ooooTewksbury was astonished. “What? Of course not . . . it never occurred to me!” The awkward silence that followed was punctuated by a dry laugh. “Wouldn’t that be ironic?” He had to hitch in his seat to reach the cigarette. He removed it nonchalantly from the pack. “No. I was disappointed that he might not have read it. The thought that he might have died with that supercilious grin on his face . . . ” He put the cigarette between his lips, ran his tongue against the stubbly end of the filter, “still thinking he had the upper hand . . . it was almost more than I could bear.
oooo“Of course, now that you mention it . . . ” He laughed again.
oooo“Wouldn’t that be ironic?” Pause. “Got a light?”
ooooAlbert turned his black eyes on Tewksbury and put the matches in his pocket. “No.”
ooooTewksbury smiled with half his mouth, sighed, and dropped the cigarette on the pack. “You smoke too much.”
ooooThere was a pause.
ooooAlbert managed to scratch out three more measures. He realized the whole piece was starting to take place around the accidental triplet. The mystical workings of serendipity always amazed him; but the unexpected results were often enjoyable.
oooo“I’d better go. I’ve got a class in fifteen minutes,” said Tewksbury. But he didn’t go. He sat searching the apartment for his thoughts.
oooo“Taking his cue from the silence, Albert looked up. “Forty eight’s young.”
ooooIt amazed Albert when people spat out their ages like that, as if it was foremost in their minds all the time and required no calculation whatsoever.
ooooTewksbury stood up, retrieved his hat from Rimsky-Korsakoff, and scuffed to the door. “Death is real, Albert,” he said, puffing an imaginary cigarette. “Take care you don’t catch it.”
oooo“Albert was already scratching furiously on the brown paper bag.
ooooTewksbury left the room.
ooooThat evening Albert found a tin of sardines and some peanut butter for supper. There wasn’t any bread, but the combination worked well as a dip. He found some milk and some Ding Dongs, too. Several days’ debris had fetched up on the naugahyde recliner; he pushed it aside, made room for his feet on an upright trumpet case, and began his dinner.
ooooThe TV took a long time to warm up. It was an ancient black-and-white tube type that someone had given him; so old it should only show reruns. He turned it on whenever he sat down to eat and watched whatever was on, then, when he had finished eating, shut it off. It was fulfilling a social obligation; a nod to the world of which he seldom felt a part.
ooooThe news was on. He hated the news, but the sound was off so he didn’t bother changing the channel. The bright blue light poured the world into his room, spilling staccato shadows of violence and rage all over his music, his instruments, himself. He didn’t watch. He felt violated and embarrassed, the way he’d felt at a Dukakis rally he’d been dragged to once.
ooooHe looked at the ceiling while he ate. When he’d finished, he dislodged himself from the chair and reached for the TV, shutting it off just as a familiar face flashed on the screen. He turned it back on. The little pinhead of white light immediately burst into a full-screen picture of Tewksbury. Albert dropped the glasses back onto his nose, squinted at the screen and turned up the sound. A crisp young lady was speaking from the ether of electronics behind the grainy, ten-year-old snapshot of the Head of Archaeology.
oooo“Dr. Andrew Tewksbury was discovered in the dead man’s office late this afternoon,” said the woman, her voice brittle and a shade contemptuous.
oooo“Andrew,” Albert repeated. He’d never thought of Tewksbury as having a first name.
ooooAnother face took the place of Tewksbury’s. The caption identified it as belonging to Police Lieutenant William Craig, Jr. The lieutenant was not any more comfortable being watched than Albert was watching him. That seemed to speak well of him, somehow.
oooo“I saw a light on when I returned to Dr. Glenly’s office. I’d made arrangements to go back that night to clean up, make sure we hadn’t overlooked anything. Just routine. There wasn’t any reason to expect foul play, up to that time. So the place wasn’t guarded. Then I found Tewksbury . . . Dr. Tewksbury in the office, going through the papers and things of the deceased subject.” Did that sound as awkward to everyone watching as it did to him? “The place had been neat as a pin earlier. Now it was a mess.”
oooo“And you found something incriminating in Dr. Tewksbury’s possession? Something that cast a new light on the death and made you suspect foul play?” said someone with an arm and a microphone.
ooooThe lieutenant moved his mouth nervously, evidently to accommodate the words that had been put there. He moonlighted security at the Stop and Shop; he wasn’t media-wise.
oooo“Yes,” he said. “We think there might be more to it. It’s just speculation at this point.” He swallowed, darted a shy glance full into the camera, wondering if it was over. The little red light was still on. That meant the camera was still running. It wanted more. “It might have been murder.” He hadn’t meant to say that. “I think you should be talking to my superior . . . ”
ooooThe lieutenant’s picture went away and was replaced by the crisp lady, sitting at a white desk with lots of television screens behind her.
ooooAlbert was glad none of them was tuned to the news.
ooooThe woman was attractive in an antiseptic, sexless way – like a statue – and talked without using her eyebrows or moving her upper lip. “Sources close to the investigation report an ongoing animosity between Dr. Tewksbury and the dead man concerning credit-taking on some fine points of ancient history.”
oooo“Etruscan,” said Albert.
oooo“Glenly was widely respected in university circles for his controversial theories on the ethnic origins of certain Mediterranean peoples. Dr. Justin Glenly, dead at 48 of unknown causes; though police grant the possibility of foul play. We’ll have more on the story as it unfolds.”
ooooAlbert shut off the TV. Usually the world left the room when he did that. Not now, though. It was still there, palpable in the darkness. The shadows were full of Lt. William Craig, Jr., and the Crisp News Woman, and the disembodied voice with the microphone, all talking at once; all implying that Tewksbury had killed Glenly.
ooooIsn’t that what they were saying?
ooooAnd he’d denied the condemned man a cigarette.
ooooAlbert cocked his head as if listening for something. He heard a siren in the distance; footsteps creaking on the ancient floor above. Rain. Traffic. Soft voices in the hall. A world of sounds, but the music was gone. The domineering mistress that commanded all his senses had packed her bags and gone – crowded from his brain newly inhabited by shadows – and no longer there to drown out the world.
ooooWould she ever find her way back?
ooooThe police station represented everything that Albert didn’t understand about the world. It had been a grand building once, but several decades of lead-based paint – added layer-upon-layer, like false testimony – were proving more weight than the plaster could bear; tearing it from the wall and exposing it to air and sunlight so that it turned to powder and rained down upon the blindfolded statue of Justice in the foyer. Every night the cleaning crew swept it up in bits and pieces. Someday they’d sweep up the last of it and all the official-looking people in polyester suits and uniforms would have to find a new place to drink coffee and ignore people.
ooooIt was going to be one of those uncomfortable times that Albert hated. He went to the biggest desk and waited.
ooooThere was a black woman seated in a green swivel chair on the other side of the desk, and an older man, white, with pale eyes; red, watery, and strained by cynicism. She was writing, he was on the phone.
ooooAlbert cleared his throat. The woman finished writing one thing and started another. The man hung up the phone and began opening and closing drawers, Iooking for something. Albert sighed and put his hands on the desk. The woman looked at them out of the corner of her eyes, then sideways at him. It was a territorial warning. Albert put his hands in his pockets. He needed them to play the piano.
ooooThe woman returned to her writing. “May I help you’?” she said. Odd how a sentence and the tone of its delivery can so emphatically contradict one another.
oooo“I’d like to see someone . . . in prison,” said Albert.
ooooThe man and woman looked at each other and laughed by merely flaring their nostrils. Albert reddened. He was a foreigner and didn’t know the language.
oooo“This is a jail, not a prison,” the woman explained. The distinction was lost on Albert. “Name,” said the woman, twisting an official-looking form into the laundry ringer of her typewriter. It was a question without a question mark. Albert’s heart skipped a beat. He had a fifty-fifty chance.
oooo“T-o-o-k .” said the woman, typing.
oooo“T-e-w-k . . . ” Albert corrected.
ooooThe woman scalded him with a glance, ripped the triplicate form from her typewriter, slam-dunked it into the basket, and began again. By the time the spelling was worked out, Albert felt his clothes had outgrown him. “And who do you want to see, Dr. Tewksbury?”
ooooIn the end, Albert told them he was Tewksbury’s brother-in-law. Whether that got him into the little waiting room or not, he didn’t know. Albert was pretty sure Tewksbury wasn’t even married. Almost positive.
ooooHe hadn’t been prepared for the search. He should watch more TV. It was embarrassing and they seemed suspicious when they didn’t find anything in his pockets but a sax reed and a tidal chart. It took him a long time to remember where the chart came from, then he realized he must have gotten it when he went to see his mother in Maine last year. He used the sax reed as a guitar pick.
ooooThey asked him why he didn’t have a wallet or any money. He said he didn’t own a wallet. He didn’t need folding money or credit cards . . . they didn’t fit in cigarette machines. Finally they called the school and got someone to identify him. Apparently it wasn’t that difficult.
ooooThe waiting room was small, with a wooden table and two folding chairs. The table had lots of scratches on it. The walls were painted to a wavy mid-point with glossy dark brown paint roughly the color of excrement and the rest of the way with a color Albert couldn’t imagine a name for. Most of the linoleum tiles on the floor were torn or warped and there were deep scuff marks in them on either side of the table. Cigarette burns pocked every surface. A thick metal grid covered the room’s solitary window which looked out onto the soot-baked bricks of an adjacent building. The view discouraged escape.
ooooThe wait dragged on. He couldn’t dispel the notion that they’d found him out on the brother-in-law lie and were going to ignore him into confession. Finally the door opened and Tewksbury came in. A uniformed policeman came in, too, and stood against the wall and looked out the window at the bricks.
ooooTewksbury looked confused and frightened. It was a world he didn’t understand, either. He sat on the other chair and asked for a cigarette. Albert gave him one, and a match. Tewksbury looked at them, then gave them back. “It’s not that bad yet, is it?”
ooooAlbert shrugged his shoulders. “Are you all right?” It was a rhetorical question. The answer was obvious. “It was on the news. What happened?”
ooooTewksbury leaned across the table. The policeman yawned, looked at his watch and back out the window. Albert leaned in.
oooo“I’ve been framed,” said Tewksbury. His breath was very bad. “I . . . got a call in the office after my last class. I don’t know who it was. A man. He said he knew about the letter. He said the police would find it interesting.” His hands busily sculpted the air with his tension. “I thought it was a blackmailer. I waited for him to say something . . . make some kind of demand, you know? But he didn’t. I heard him breathing for a minute, then he hung up.”
oooo“You went to Glenly’s office?”
ooooTewksbury nodded. “It was a mess. There were papers everywhere.” Tewksbury’s concept of “mess” differed wildly from Albert’s. “It looked like your place.”
ooooAlbert nibbled at a hangnail. It tasted like stale cigarettes.
oooo“Who’d want to kill Glenly?”
oooo“You can start with his mother and work your way out in ever-widening circles, I should imagine. He was a . . . pestilence. I’m surprised the meteorologists haven’t commented on the improvement in air quality since he died,” Tewksbury bounced a twitching smile off Albert’s blank face, “but I didn’t do it.” He grabbed Albert’s hands and squeezed them tightly. “I didn’t, Albert.”
ooooAlbert instinctively retrieved his hands from archaeology’s grasp. Some leftover sunlight squeezed through the window grate to see what was going on. Albert traced the patchwork of shadows on the table.
oooo“I had a motive,” Tewksbury continued. “I don’t deny it. But there were others, Albert. Lots of others.” He seemed to be struggling not to say what came next. “He was a . . . he manipulated people. No scruples. He knew just what everyone wanted to hear, and said it. They ate it up! Smart people. The Dean, the Chancellor. Women.”
oooo“Girls. Students. He teased them. Innuendo, you know? Sophomoric behavior. Detestable especially for someone in his position. But . . . they’d giggle. He’d giggle. The gargoyle.”
ooooAlbert had witnessed this kind of unreasoning hatred years before, on the playground. In the classroom. It resulted from the hoarding of offense and bridled at the slightest provocation.
oooo“People were afraid of him, like they are of sharks. A terrible fascination.” Eyes downcast, slow deep breath vacates lungs all at once. “It was like he cast a spell on people. I don’t know. I never understood it. I mean, intellectually he was a cipher. I’m not just saying that. Everyone on the faculty will tell you the same – would have, anyway, if he wasn’t dead. ooooAcademically his accomplishments were practically nil. Even his teaching abilities were rudimentary; Cliff notes, probably. But he had a way. I don’t know.”
ooooThere was a silence during which the guard had time to look at his watch twice.
oooo“What now?” said Albert after a while.
oooo“They’ve denied bail, pending arraignment day after tomorrow.”
ooooThere followed a brief lesson in American jurisprudence headed by its most recent victim, who understood the subject only in the light of the last few hours’ events.
oooo“Do you have a lawyer?”
oooo“The school has lawyers for this type of thing. I’m sure they’ll send someone over. I know I can’t afford one.” Tewksbury exhaled through his nose. “They’ve assigned me a public defender in the meantime, compliments of the legal system. They said he’d be here, but I haven’t seen him yet.” He looked where his watch would have been if he’d been wearing one. “I’m sure the school will do something. They have to, don’t you think?”
ooooWould the sun rise? To Albert the school was the womb. It defined the parameters within which he lived and breathed. It sheltered him. It abided his imperfections. Forgave him for being clueless. Together with Huffy, his agent at William Morris, it coordinated his life; told him when to be where and got him there. Best of all, it welcomed him when he returned.
ooooHe ate free at the cafeteria.
oooo“Of course it will,” he said.
ooooBoth men studied their fingers for a minute. “I told them I was your brother-in-law,” Albert confessed in a whisper.
ooooTewksbury smiled. The guard smiled, too. “Good idea,” said Tewksbury.
oooo“I just felt like I should see you. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do,” said Albert. “Does your family know?”
oooo“I just have my father,” said Tewksbury, “in Vermont. He’s had enough problems in his life since my mom died four years ago. I’m not going to bother him with it.” Pause. “He’s old.” Pause. “Besides, I’ll be out of here soon.”
ooooAlbert nodded. “Who do you think it was who called you?”
oooo“I don’t know.”
oooo“You didn’t recognize the voice?”
ooooTewksbury replayed the phone call mentally. “No. It was breathy. Almost a whisper. Whispers all sound the same.”
ooooIt was a ridiculous assertion to Albert. Faces, names, relationships . . . they all congealed in an amorphose mass . . . but voices, sound, that was the currency he dealt in. He never forgot a sound.
ooooOver the next several days Albert poked his head out into the world like a Disney character waking from hibernation. He listened to the radio, watched TV, read the newspapers, inputting all the information he could get on the “I.Q. Murder” as the press dubbed it. The edges of the story were trimmed with other news, having to do with other lives, other events. They told about a world too big and disturbing to cope with. So he didn’t. If the news didn’t pertain to Tewksbury, he simply tuned it out.
ooooThings weren’t going well for Tewksbury. His fingerprints had been found all over Glenly’s office. The incriminating letter had turned up and was reprinted in the papers; combustible material for gossip in a small college town. Blackest of all, the school had decided not to sully itself with the business. Its concern was summed up in a brief statement to the press. “The college will do everything possible to aid the police in their investigation.”
ooooAlbert had once seen a film run backward. A building lay in ruin amid a cloud of dust and debris, then, magically, reassembled itself. The analogy came to mind as the days passed. From the initial confusion and chaos an orderly array of evidence fell into place, as if by magic, forming an edifice of implications around Tewksbury. A place with no doors and no windows. No room for movement.
ooooThe story faded from the front pages. History. There was a touching human interest piece when Tewksbury’s father finally visited him in jail. Albert had met him, a confused old fellow who couldn’t hear well and didn’t understand why his son was there.
ooooAlbert stopped reading papers after that. The TV died a violent death. There must be some chemical in coffee that destroys electronic things. A scientist could explain it. He turned the radio back to the classical station but kept the volume low, otherwise he’d hear it.
ooooHe visited Tewksbury regularly. He was the only one who did.
ooooThe black lady even smiled now when he came to the desk. She’d hand him something to sign, which he did, then a policeman would take him to a room and search him. He’d bought a wallet for the occasion. It had a picture of Howdy Doody on it; a precaution that should keep it from getting mixed up with others.
ooooTewksbury was an official prisoner now, his life reduced to shades of gray. Albert had brought him the books he’d requested from the school library, Plutarch’s Lives, the works of Josephus, Aristobulus, Hermes Tiesmegistus, Strabos, Justinian, and Herodotus.
ooooAt first he seemed to gain some inspiration from them. Then he stopped asking for more. He stopped reading. His mind imploded in helplessness. His words spewed the dust of his internment.
oooo“What about the phone call?” asked Albert. “Didn’t you tell them about it?”
oooo“Of course I did,” said Tewksbury. “Over and over. They don’t believe me.”
ooooAlbert hadn’t thought of that. What could be expected, though, in a world where even the school couldn’t be depended upon?
ooooTewksbury was chain-smoking now. “Somebody’s doing this. It’s all too perfect.”
oooo“What do you mean?”
oooo“It’s like I’m trapped under ice,” said Tewksbury. “Every time I find some breathing space, it freezes over before I can get to it.”
oooo“What’s the public defender doing?”
oooo“He’s gone, thank heavens,” said Tewksbury, tossing the public defender out of the picture with a quick jerk of the head. “He resented the fact I wasn’t some drugged-out homeless pariah. I don’t think he’d ever defended a taxpayer.
oooo“The school retained a private firm.” Tewksbury brightened a little, like a child who has just been told he may keep the light on in the hall and the door open a crack. “Goldstein, Perlman, Quimby and Bowles,” he said. It was clear from the look in Albert’s eyes that he might as well have recited the phone book. “Connors recommended them.”
ooooAlbert seized on the one name that had a ring of familiarity.
ooooTewksbury’s optimism, newly born and self-generated, wasn’t proof against the unmasked doubt in Albert’s eyes. Somebody shut the door on his little room of hope and it was dark again. If there was a light on in the hall, he couldn’t see it. “Professor Connors, Dean of the Law School.”
ooooAlbert mouthed the words, “The Law School.” He was aware of it; an intimidating Secret Society . . . like the Masons or the NEA. Lawyers, his mother had said after losing a boundary dispute with a neighbor, were ‘practitioners of dark arts who lick sustenance from the mucousy fringe at the edge of the Underworld . . . where they spend their holidays.’
ooooMother – at heart a Maine housewife, despite her Brahmin upbringing – would have found it difficult to edit her opinions, had she ever tried.
ooooHe’d seen emissaries of the Law School at faculty meetings; older men who always looked elsewhere when they shook your hand; younger men who seemed to be driving fast German sports cars, even when they were sitting still in the conference room, smiling.
oooo“Goldstein . . . Perlman, Quimby and . . . ” Tewksbury felt as if he was reciting a nursery story about four dwarves. The last gentleman caught on the lump at the back of his throat. He coughed him up. “Bowles. They’re supposed to be the best. Reputable.”
oooo“Reputable,” Albert repeated. “What do they say?”
oooo“About your being framed.”
ooooTewksbury’s remaining confidence shrunk like a wool sweater. “It’s hard to say. I told them all about it . . . the phone call. I don’t know what they think. They don’t talk in straight lines.” Pause. Sigh. “I don’t think they believe me.”
ooooAlbert imagined himself in Tewksbury’s place. He was sitting at the end of a long table in a windowless room. The table was lined with young lawyers wearing manicured expressions that all shifted in unison. First-degree concern. Shift. Second-degree corcern. Shift. Worry. Shift. Mild amusement. Shift. They parenthesized in Latin and refused to commit to so much as the color of their coffee. He shivered.
oooo“Shouldn’t they believe you?”
oooo“l don’t know,” said Tewksbury. “You’d think so, but . . . I don’t understand the whole business, frankly. I feel like I’m in the middle of the Nazca plain . . . lines stretching off to infinity in every direction. There must be a pattern somewhere. But it’s only discernible from an impossible altitude.
ooooHis eyes brimmed with tears.
ooooAt the moment it occurred to Albert that a jury would no more convict him than it would a puppy in an orphan’s arms. If he could just hold that expression.
oooo“I didn’t do anything, Albert! How can it seem I was there at the time of the murder, when I wasn’t? How can it seem as though I poisoned him, when I didn’t?” Tewksbury’s brows were arched upward, like hairy little fists clasped in supplication. “I didn’t do it, Albert. How can it seem like I did?”
ooooThe building analogy came again to mind. It was nearly reassembled. They were putting in the carpet and the bath fixtures. Pretty soon they’d be turning the keys over to the new owners, who shouldn’t mind the tapping within the walls. Seems they’d built an archaeologist into the place. But his room had no windows. No doors. Not to worry, there was never meant to be a way out.
oooo“What is Golderberg doing?”
oooo“Goldstein,” Tewksbury corrected. “He’s dead. They just kept the name on. They’re all dead, as far as I know. Like Sears and Roebuck.”
ooooAlbert wondered if Mr. Dunkin’ was dead as well. “Who’s your lawyer, then?”
oooo“I don’t have a lawyer,” Tewksbury replied. “I’ve got an ice sculpture named Melissa Bjork.”
oooo“A woman?” Albert was cognizant of women. They played violins and flutes. His mother had played the saxophone, but she was exceptional. His sister wasn’t musical, so he wasn’t sure what she did, besides live in Florida and have children. But she wasn’t a lawyer.
oooo“I thought so at first,” said Tewksbury. “She sure looks like one. She’s got . . . .” he cupped his hands a unnatural distance from his chest. His eyes brightened for a moment. Albert knew Tewksbury was a womanizer. He’d been subjected to any number of his monologues on the subject. They made Albert uncomfortable, but seemed to fill a need for Tewksbury. “She doesn’t believe me, either.” Tewksbury lowered his hands, and his expectations. “She doesn’t care.”
oooo“‘They said you could get out on bail,” said Albert. He’d forgotten overhearing that. He wasn’t sure what it was, but “out” had a positive ring to it.
oooo“Out!” said Tewksbury, rising quickly. “Out to what? People pointing at me and talking about me? Reporters in my face twenty-four hours a day? No, thanks.” He looked around the room. “That would be hell. This is just purgatory. I’ll just stick it out. It’s warm and I eat a lot better than you do.”
ooooThere was another silence. A sudden burning sensation reminded Albert that he’d tucked a lit cigarette behind his ear. He removed it and ground its remains into a peanut-butter jar lid that the state had provided for the purpose. “What do they do . . . lawyers? How do they find out what happened?”
ooooTewksbury shook his head and rubbed his red eyes with the heels of his hands. “I don’t know. I guess they ask questions. Frankly my understanding of the profession doesn’t extend much beyond what you see on TV.” That explained why Albert’s understanding extended no where at all. “I don’t know if Miss Bjork does anything but put in time. She looks at me like . . . I get the feeling she goes home and takes a bath in disinfectant after she leaves here,” he said. “I don’t think she believes me, either. Nobody does.”
oooo“Does she ask questions?”
ooooThe beeper on the guard’s watch went off. The visit was over. Tewksbury got up from the table. “I guess so. How else would she find out anything? He turned as the guard led him from the room. “I’ve been forgotten, Albert.”
ooooAt the trial Albert learned that “truth,” as defined by the law, was a much more abstract and slippery thing than he’d imagined; a distant and ragged relation to his concept of right and wrong. In a court of law, nothing was absolutely true, but anything might be legal, or illegal.
ooooAmbiguity was the byword. He wondered how it was possible to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” if you weren’t allowed to finish a sentence.
For the most part the proceedings were a blur to Albert. In the end a few important things stood out, and they painted a bleak picture for Tewksbury. The infamous letter was admitted in evidence, the heat of its scholarly indignation parboiling Tewksbury where he sat, especially in the eyes of the men and women of the jury, mostly blue-collar workers from the factory side of town who had little fondness for academics in general and whose patience seemed strained by discussion of the finer points of Etruscan civilization.
ooooThere was a lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking.
ooooAlbert, standing in line at the water cooler during a recess, was made sharply aware of the popular consensus by the conversation of two men in front of him.
ooooMan number one, a burly blond who stood an arm’s length taller than Albert: “Nossir. If you’re gonna kill somebody you do it with a shotgun, or a tire iron. That’s what I’d do.” He took a long, loud sip.
ooooAlbert wondered if most people were like that, perpetually prepared to murder.
ooooMan number two nodded. He was a little shorter than Albert, and roughly as tall as he was wide. His cap matched his bright orange hooded sweatshirt, and the ensemble was set off to great effect by black-and-red plaid wool pants and brown boots. “Sulfites.” he said disdainfully. “It’d take one’ve them eggheads to come up with a stunt like that.”
oooo“Etruscans,” said man number one with a wag of the head as he rose from the fountain. Water dribbled down his beard. He wiped at it with his sleeve.
oooo“Etruscans,” echoed man number two, pressing his lips to the spigot. “Who the hell cares?”
ooooConcerning the fight in the hallway with Glenly, three or four coeds were called to witness, each wording their testimony with a mind to how it would look in the papers back home. Scrapbook material. Two young men acknowledged the scuffle. Not really a fight. A slap or two. A sprained wrist and a bloody nose. Nothing broken. No vital organs displaced. Mostly yelling. Comes of being more accustomed to backstabbing than frontal attack.
ooooBut there was no doubt who started it.
ooooOne thing, though, struck Albert as curious: nobody eulogized Professor Glenly. No one testified about the dead man’s services to humanity in general, or the community in particular. Even the school had only the requisite to say. The same as it says for indifferent janitors and cafeteria cooks upon retirement after long service.
ooooSeveral people, Albert among them, were called to testify on behalf of Tewksbury. For the most part, though, their testimony as to Tewksbury’s character was so tepid and equivocal it would have been better if they’d stayed home. Albert wished he’d stayed home. What could he say about Tewksbury? Only that he was sure he hadn’t killed anyone. They wouldn’t let him say that.
ooooMaybe Tiglath-Pilesir III or Akenaten would have spoken well of him. Maybe not. Who knows what the dead think of the living?
ooooIn the end it was proved – at least to the satisfaction of a jury of his peers – that Tewksbury had murdered his academic nemesis, a crime all the more sinister since it was not one of passion, of archaeological ardor, but of cunning. Planning. “Councils held in the secret hours with the changeling shadows of private torment and jealousy,” in the prosecutor’s words.
ooooGlenly had been killed with sulfites, a common food additive to which a small portion of the population, Glenly among them, is deathly allergic. His allergy was no secret on campus. He’d raised a stink about their use in the cafeteria, and succeeded in eliminating them from the kitchen.
ooooIt was effectively demonstrated that Tewksbury had access to an abundant supply of sulfites in the lab where he had recently been working with student-chemists to develop a preservative for what he called “archaeological undies,” organic artifacts too delicate to withstand the debilitating effects of exposure to light and air.
ooooSo, in the end, Tewksbury was found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Nevertheless, Albert had his doubts.
ooooThey’d set aside a separate day to announce the sentence, which Albert thought strange; as if the judge hadn’t entertained the possibility during the long weeks of the trial. In the end the going rate for Glenly’s life was set at twenty years in Walpole State Penitentiary, with the possibility of parole in seven. Payment to begin immediately.
ooooThe sentence was much more lenient than beheading or burning at the stake, which Albert had anticipated as the natural consequence for taking someone’s life. Then again, Tewksbury was innocent. Albert was sure of it. Maybe the jury had taken that into account.
ooooIt was dark by the time it was all over. A storm that had been threatening all day had worked itself into a frenzy. Albert took a bus back to the school and struck off across the common.
ooooSnow had been falling on Albert’s neck for ten minutes before he realized it. A few icy daggers traced his spine. He shivered and turned his collar to the storm. Loud mirthless music thumped through the ancient walls of one of the dorms, like a demon’s heartbeat.
ooooHis eyes were drawn to one of the lighted windows, the shades of which were closed. Human-shaped shadows threw themselves around with the abandon of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai.
ooooHe stood still and looked around the campus. Everything was where it was supposed to be. The snow drifted in the same places it always drifted. Naked veins of ivy held the old brick buildings to earth and, over the edge of the world, its half-shaded windows lit in a self-satisfied smirk, the Law School leered malevolently.
ooooEverything was the same, but something had changed; something fundamental to Albert’s foreshortened understanding of things. How could the world absorb the terrible knowledge of Tewksbury’s imprisonment and continue on as if nothing had happened? Shouldn’t everything come to a halt until the truth had been got to? Who would keep up with all the latest developments in Ancient History?
ooooAlbert released a captive sigh of steam which the wind seized with angry fingers and tore to pieces. Snow had collected on his glasses, obscuring everything from sight. He didn’t wipe them off. He bent his head to the wind and let habit lead him home.
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David A. Crossman