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Murder at Milltown Junior College
John A. Broussard
The tall, balding man was annoyed. He had moved to the Pacific Northwest from Nebraska to escape from snow, and here the rain was turning into the stuffÑwhite, wet, stinging. The temperature was dropping, and the ground was sure to be covered by morning.
He fumbled with his keys, even though there was plenty of light streaming through the glass front door of the building. Once inside, he brushed the snow from his overcoat, took off his hat and shook it, then climbed the wide central stairway to the deserted second floor.
Still irritated at the snow, and at the moisture that had seeped through his dress shoes in the half-block walk to the administration building, he searched again for the keys he had absentmindedly stuffed back into his pocket. Opening the door to the outer office, he noticed the layer of dust that had accumulated over the holidays, and made a mental note to call the custodian to task for this neglect.
His first thought after he had crossed the room and opened the door to his own office was that the custodian had been even more negligent here. A scrap of paper lay on the carpet in front of his desk. As he bent over to pick it up, that first thought became his last. He never even felt the blow crushing the part of his brain that told his lungs to breathe and his heart to beat.
The light snow that had started during the night was changing into a cold drizzle. As Jason Reilly climbed the slippery front steps of the J. Bennett Colson Memorial Hall, which the administration building was almost never called, it struck him that the brightly lit campus was at its best in the lingering darkness of the winter morning, with a thin layer of snow to soften its box-like lines and camouflage the architectural hodgepodge.
Too bad, he reflected, that the snow could not similarly soften the human environment of the college he had come to, full of hope and enthusiasm, some dozen years before at the end of World War II.
The sound of a car interrupted his thoughts. It was Virginia Swenson, President Green's secretary, driving up through the melting slush in her battered Buick. Jason had always rather liked Virginia, despite her seeming blindness to her boss's egregious flaws. Whether her tolerance stemmed from a charitable nature or from a desire to keep her job, Jason had never really decided, but he inclined toward the former view. At five feet, eight inches, Virginia was almost as tall as Jason, and her graceful figure was her one redeeming physical feature. Her long nose, heavy jaw and wrinkled face added more than a decade to her forty-odd years.
Perhaps it was because she reminded him of the sister, who had been just enough older than himself to naturally take him in tow, that he felt a liking for her. He had basked in the attentions of his secondary mother. He had considered that submitting to her determined, if sometimes capricious, will, and the minor indignities this had frequently subjected him toÑlike the time, when she was nine and he was four, that she had made him pretend to be crippled, while she pulled him around the neighborhood in a wagon, asking for moneyÑwere a small enough price to pay for the attentions she had lavished upon him.
"Hi," Virginia said as she came up the steps, searching her purse. "How did the holidays treat you?"
"Well, I went snowshoeing in the Cascades and got some fantastic black and white shots," he said, "but the thought of coming back here pretty much ruined the holidays for me." He did not want to admit even to himself that what had really ruined them for him was Marie WatanabeÕs absence. "How were your holidays?"
"Great! Larry and I went to see his family in Minnesota. The worst part was getting back here. We didn't make it until almost five this morning. SEATAC was socked in, and we had to land in Portland and bus up. I'm really bushed."
She opened the heavy glass door to the entrance hall, and they climbed the stairs to the administrative offices. Jason went off to check his mailbox and was emptying out the junk mail accumulated over the previous week when he heard Virginia call.
"What's up?" he said, walking back down the hall to where she was standing outside the door to her office.
"The door's stuck. I'm in need of a man with a strong back."
"Stuck? Even the doors don't work on this campus. We sure had a rare combination of bad design, faulty construction and inferior materials when this place was built."
He turned the knob and pushed. The door opened about an inch or so. When he leaned his weight against the flimsy panels, the space widened at the top, but the bottom refused to budge. "I can't see how the weather could have made it swell that much, when the gaps under these doors are big enough to throw a dog through." He knelt down to look.
The doorstop used to hold open the badly hung door was the culprit.
"The wedge got stuck under it from the inside," he said. "I don't see how that could have happened. The door must have caught on it when it was opened and then dragged it back."
He took a pen from his pocket. "I'll have it open in a second," he said. He closed the door and pushed the wedge sideways out of the way. Then he stood up, swung open the door, and held it for Virginia.
"Back to your cell!" he commanded.
She saluted and marched into the office.
Her scream reached him before he had gone more than a few steps down the hall. When he ran back to where she was standing facing into the President's office, he found one of his major problems resolved.
Gilbert Green was lying face down on the floor just inside the door. A trickle of blood had dried after tracing a path down his neck and onto the plush carpet of his office, red on red. Beside him lay one of his college basketball trophies, its recumbent figure straining to throw the ball at the ceiling.
Though he would never have admitted it to anyone but his wife, Lieutenant Paul Yankovich felt a certain thrill of anticipation when he received the call informing him of the murder. The routine business of the past week had not begun to fill the void left by Ann and their three-year-old son. The two of them had gone off to Los Angeles to be with Ann's father, who had suffered a stroke. The nightly phone calls did little to improve Paul's mood. His father-in-law showed no signs of improving. Ann's mother needed her, and Paul could not bring himself to demand priority.
He still missed them. Extra hours at work and even the novelty of the new, oversized TV helped little. A murder might be just what he needed to take his mind off of his family's absence.
It pleased him that Chief Stavros had not felt it necessary even to talk to him about the murder. The case was in his own hands to pursue in his own way. The Chief was unlikely to interfere, at least at the outset. Ann, who was a writer, and who occasionally taught an evening class in literature at the college, likened the Chief to Field Marshal Kutuzov in Tolstoy's War and Peace.
"Kutuzov was in charge of the Russian army when Napoleon invaded. He never told his generals what to do, even in the heat of battle. They'd rush up to him with all sorts of problems, and he'd just nod his head and maybe ask a few questions. Pretty soon they'd calm down and go happily back to their battle stations, thinking he had solved their problems for them." Ann had told him this one day when Paul was describing his superior.
Paul said, "Yes, but what happened when the generals really screwed up? I know what Stavros would do. He gives you a long lead line, but you'd darn well better do the job or he'll reel it in in a hurry."
The Lieutenant threw himself eagerly into the routine work a homicide entailed, but Jason's reaction was more complex. When the initial shock wore off, his first feeling was a sense that the world and Milltown JC were both better off for Green's death. Yet being what he considered a prisoner of his own "bourgeois morality," he was prepared to cooperate fully with the police. Besides, it was not exactly comforting to know a murderer was loose on campus. If it was not a burglar, and he doubted it was, then the sooner the police solved the case, the better.
Later, when the police asked Jason about the few moments following the discovery of Green's body, the things he could recall were Virginia making choking noises as she stared at the corpse, the third drawer down in the four-drawer file cabinet behind Green's desk hanging out empty, the window in the back of the room open, and the cold rain blowing in. For form's sake he had reached down to feel for a pulse but gave up immediately at the touch of the icy skin.
He had led the sobbing Virginia to the registrar's office and immediately phoned the Milltown police. A patrol car in the vicinity arrived in record time, followed a few minutes later by two other police vehicles. Lieutenant Yankovich stepped out of one of them and took charge.
Jason had had the stocky Lieutenant as a student in two of his classes and had occasionally run into him in town after Paul had joined the force. Because the formality of the student-teacher relationship was something that wore off only slowly, they hadnÕt become genuinely friendly until the past year.
On two separate occasions Paul had come by the campus to ask Jason for help on matters in his area of expertise, and twice Jason had reciprocated by asking the Lieutenant to speak to his criminology class. He had been pleasantly surprised at how effectively his former student had been able to switch to the role of instructor.
Despite their mutual respect, the two men were unlike each other in many ways. Jason was tolerant of Paul's drive and ambition, while not sharing them. He enjoyed teaching and had no desire to move on to "bigger and better" things. He derived a distinct pleasure from instructing the students who were interested, and had no qualms about ignoring those who were not.
Until recently, Jason had found the permissive atmosphere of the Junior College a refreshing change from the pressures he had seen his professors in graduate school endure. No one at Milltown JC clamored for him to publish. In fact, research and publication were considered evidence of elitism on the part of a Junior College instructor. Instead of "publish or perish," it was more like "publish at your peril." Whatever else might be said about it, the administration did leave the instructors almost completely to their own devices in the classroom.
As Jason had recently told Paul, the atmosphere was changing, however. Green was becoming more blatantly autocratic and, among the faculty, bitterness toward his pettiness was coming closer to the surface. Ludicrous directives, arbitrary and unexplained, emerged from his office. One day it was a terse note that, "No one is to any longer use colored chalk." The next day it was a pronouncement that, "All teachers are to submit a written evaluation of their own teaching at the end of each quarter."
One day Green called Jason into his office to inform him that he had received numerous complaints about Jason's teaching. When Jason asked about the nature of the complaints, Green would only say, "You know what they are." He refused to elaborate except to state that there had been reports of Jason criticizing the administration in his classes.
"There would be no point in telling you. You'd just find other ways of attacking the administration. Besides, it's confidential information."
Faculty meetings found Green at his worst. Tired slogans, long discarded by the most backward of education departments, and new catch phrases which became cliches at their inception, were creeping more and more into his interminable speeches. "We don't teach subject matter here. We teach the student as a whole." Wilson Kohler, the Social Science Department Head, had leaned across to Jason at that remark and whispered loudly, "I think of the student as a hole, tooÑas a pit into which we pour subject matter, and it drains right through."
Having fallen upon the notion that age should be the only prerequisite for a student's admission to the college, Green happily continued to adhere to the view that this indiscriminate encouragement of the hopeless along with everyone else was an unalloyed virtue. "Selective retention" had been what he had called the college's policy of welcoming everyone, then painfully and inaccurately weeding out the masses of the recruits. Wilson had a field day with the new concept, and Jason had to admit the phrase evoked a scatological image in his own mind.
The latest of Green's hobbyhorses was his plan to change the name of the college. "We're not junior to anyone," he announced as a great revelation at what turned out to be his last meeting. "We need a new name which will show the community what we really are." After the meeting, suggestions at the luncheon table ranged from "Notre Dame" to "Milltown State Penitentiary." Behind the humor lay shared resentment against an administration that was fast losing all sight of the college's real reason for existenceÑsimply making sure the student learned what he or she was supposed to learn.
Jason had disliked the arrogant and egotistical president at their first encounter, but jobs in those immediate postwar years were scarce, and Jason had wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest.
During the past year, however, Green had become such an unredeemed tyrant that Jason had decided to look elsewhere for a teaching position. The return of the Korean War veterans had definitely brightened the job picture at the college level. The vets had filled the empty spaces in the classrooms, spaces which had made precarious the jobs of many instructors. Today, the former G.I.'s were still swelling enrollment figures even beyond where they had been before the Korean "police action."
Yet despite the increasing demand for teachers, the prospect of researching available positions and writing and sending out applications seemed like such a chore that Jason had put it off.
Now there was Marie.
END OF SAMPLE
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