Nicole Tang Noonan Mystery #1
By Rick Homan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including internet usage, without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First published 2018
Copyright 2018 by Rick Homan www.RickHoman.com
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, establishments, events, or locales is purely incidental.
I am grateful to my Sisters in Crime (and brothers); my fellow writers and the librarians at the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco; and most of all to my wife, Ann.
As I sat at an umbrella table in front of Emma’s Deli in Blanton, Ohio, a man walking up the street stopped a few yards away and stared at me.
It wasn’t the five-second stare. Everyone I met in Ohio needed five seconds to stare when they laid eyes on me for the first time. It took them that long to understand they were meeting an Asian woman with freckles. The only exceptions to this rule were people who had seen my name, Nicole Tang Noonan, on my resume. They needed only three seconds.
I couldn’t be sure of the expression on his face because he was silhouetted against a bright sky, but I had the feeling his upper lip was raised in disgust. He wore work boots, jeans, a t-shirt, and a cap with a logo I didn’t recognize.
The sight of him made my skin crawl.
When Abbie came out of the deli and sat on the other side of the table, he shook his head and walked on by.
I looked to Abbie for an explanation. “What’s his problem?”
“Trust me: You don’t want to know.”
Abbie Krauss, assistant professor of economics, was my new best friend. We both lived in the section of on-campus housing devoted to single faculty: a series of wooden sheds with no porches and no landscaping, set in; straight lines on either side of a gravel road. They looked like the kind of unit provided as disaster relief for evacuees after a flood or hurricane. We called them Rabbit Hutches.
“I guess people around here aren’t used to seeing Asians unless they’re running a restaurant,” I said. The family, who operated the Golden Palace two blocks away, were the only Asians I had seen outside of Columbus. This was mind-boggling for me since I was from San Francisco where a third of the people are Asian.
Abbie shook her head. “Not everyone around here is like that. His name is Huey Littleton. He’s part of a big, extended family—lots of cousins—and most of them have never been more than fifty miles from home. They’ve been here quite a few generations, so they seem to think the entire county should be only for people like them.”
Abbie nodded. “Preferably relatives.”
“So what am I supposed to do? Bow and step aside when he passes by?”
“I know it’s insulting, but it’s the way things are here, and in a way it works. For instance, over on Maple Street, there are two bars, Buddy's and Marten’s Tavern. Buddy's is for locals like Huey. Anyone from the college would take their life in their hands if they went there on a Saturday night. Marten’s is where students can go and nobody bothers them.”
“Charming,” I said. “Be sure to tell me if there’s anything else I can do to avoid frightening the horses.”
“So what did you want to talk about?” asked Abbie.
“My first week of classes is not exactly taking flight.”
“Welcome to the club.”
“I’ve heard there’s a mural in the chapel that dates from the time of the Civil War.”
“Yes, there is.”
“So you’ve seen it?” I asked. “What’s it like?”
“It depicts the group led by Felix Fuchs who came here from Germany and established the religious commune, which eventually became Fuchs College.”
“How can I get in to take a look at it?”
“Drop by Facilities Management and sign out a key. What are you thinking?”
“If the mural is any good, I’d like to meet my art history class in the chapel. I think my students would be more interested in learning about the history of someone else’s art if they first looked at some art that is part of their own college’s history.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” said Abbie. “Let me know how it goes. There’s another thing you might do. Have you met Jacob Schumacher?”
The name did not ring a bell. I shook my head.
“He’s the chairman of the history department. He’ll be glad to hear that you’re taking an interest in the mural or anything to do with the history of the place. One of his ancestors was part of that original group who came here from Germany. It’s a good idea to have him on your side.”
Key in hand, I walked down College Avenue to the chapel. It was a plain, square building about thirty-five feet on each side with an entry hall on the west. No effort had been made to create an impression on the visitor; no materials had been squandered. It had no steeple. What charm it had, it achieved through proportion. In this it reminded me of the Shaker furniture I had seen in museums. The German immigrants who settled this land were not Shakers, but they lived in similar circumstances and apparently made what they needed in the same spirit. They took pleasure in simplicity.
The eastern side of the building had windows all the way across to provide ample morning light. The north side had no windows, and that was where the mural had been painted. I couldn’t make out any detail as I peered in, but I could tell it covered the entire wall and included several vignettes.
I let myself in, walked to the center of the large room, took in the mural, and was struck by its power. It was what we used to call folk art. This artist may have been untrained but was not unpracticed. Most important, the work was free of pretension. He or she had not felt any need to emulate the styles of great artists or strive for some conventional notion of beauty. Instead, he had developed his own vocabulary and used it to communicate what was important to him.
The mural contained several scenes and dozens of figures—men, women, and children—perhaps more than a hundred. They filled the wall, which was more than thirty feet wide and almost as high, plus a triangular space above, reaching to the roofline. The primary colors looked washed out, either because time had faded them or because the mural needed cleaning. Behind all the other images was a single tree with its roots in the ground near the floor and its crown filling the space near the ceiling. It was so faint that it appeared as if through fog, and everything else shone in front of it.
I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I had expected to find a simple landscape with some cows on the hillsides and a few houses. This mural was complex and detailed. Rather than viewing one scene from a single perspective, it included multiple scenes, each in its own perspective, as if the artist wanted to show things happening simultaneously. It was going to take me a while to understand the work before I could sort out what I would present to my students.
Monday morning was chilly, a reminder that my first Ohio winter was coming. I set out with a spring in my step to walk to the chapel, eager to meet my students and see how they would respond to a real work of art.
I don’t know what made me glance at my little yellow car as I left my Rabbit Hutch, but, when I did, I saw black spray paint on the hood. The crude, slashing lines spelled, “JAP OUT.” Frozen in my tracks, I guessed that, if “JAP” was a reference to Asians in general, then I was looking at a racist slur, and it was aimed at me. My heart started thumping.
I looked up and down Montgomery Avenue to see if anyone else was around or if any of my neighbors was looking out a window. I suppose I wanted witnesses, though I was also looking for anyone with a can of spray paint in his hand. I saw no one.
I pulled out my phone to call campus security and noticed I had about ten minutes until it was time to meet my students. Not wanting to be late for my own class, I started jogging toward the chapel.
No one was waiting when I got to the chapel, so I unlocked the door and phoned security. As I recited the few facts I had to the dispatcher, my students came walking up College Avenue, and I waved them inside. The dispatcher promised to send a car, we hung up, and I took a moment to calm the rage building inside me and focus on art history before going in.
With the students sitting in a semicircle, facing the mural, I was about to speak when I heard voices from the front door.
“I told you we’d be late,” said Kate Conrad, an especially enthusiastic student of art history, today wearing a sequined t-shirt, jeans, and ballet flats with a satin varsity-style jacket. Devon Manus, who usually seemed more interested in Kate than she was in him, followed her. He looked as if he had gotten out of bed just in time to throw on a t-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a bomber jacket.
After they found chairs, I said, “Look at the mural.”
Most of the students glanced at the wall for a few seconds, then looked back at me. Kate kept her eyes on the mural, moving them from side to side and top to bottom.
“What did you see?” I asked.
Ursula Wilmot scowled. As usual, she was dressed as if on her way to an office job and had her ring binder open on her lap, ready to take notes.
Byron Hawley, dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, all smeared with many colors of paint, so everyone would know he was an artist, said, “Poor use of perspective. Little sense of anatomy. Limited color palette.”
Kate said, “The life of a community.”
Looking around the room, I asked, “What goes on in this community?”
This got some of them squirming in their seats. Ursula Wilmot now had both hands wrapped around her ballpoint pen as if she were about to snap it in two.
Kate spoke up. “Work. Worship. Life and Death.”
“Let’s take another look,” I said.
They all looked at the mural, and their eyes were busy.
“Keep looking,” I said, as I walked around them and went to where I had left my backpack and shopping bag on a chair by the lectern. I tore two sheets for each of them off a pad of newsprint. I also gave each of them a crayon. “Maybe we should take some notes.”
Most of them put their books and backpacks in their laps and started making tiny marks on the newsprint. Kate got an extra chair on which to rest her feet and started drawing. Devon sat an arm’s length away from her, glancing first at the mural, then at Kate’s drawing, and then doodling on his own sheet.
“Are these going to be graded?” asked Ursula. Her sheet of newsprint was still blank.
“If anyone asks me that again, I will grade them,” I replied.
Everyone got to work.
I walked around the room, sneaking peeks at their drawings just to make sure they were giving it the old college try. Some of the students were making clusters of tiny figures, separated by lots of open space. Byron Hawley had produced an accurate sketch of the lower half of the mural and was adding his own details and shading. Devon’s page was a collection of starts and stops: stick figures without arms, a tree with only half its crown.
Kate’s page was a wild collection of stick figures with punctuation marks, circles, arrows, and dotted lines that seemed to suggest relationships. She was the only one to represent all parts of the mural: the scenes of work across the bottom of the wall, the scenes of worship across the upper part, and the crown of the tree reaching to the roofline. It looked like she was making connections between images and interpreting the overall layout.
In other words, she was doing what I’d done yesterday afternoon when I spent a couple of hours with the mural. How does a student in a beginner’s art history course understand a work of art on a level usually achieved by graduate students? I started getting excited, thinking about how much Kate might accomplish this semester.
After a while I stood before them again and asked, “What goes on in this community?”
This time the answers came quickly. They were looking at their drawings as they called them out. “Farming . . . I think they’re harvesting wheat . . . Picking fruit . . . Cooking . . . Must have been Thanksgiving dinner. There are five women in the kitchen . . . I counted six . . . Is that one guy giving a sermon? . . . Building something . . . I don’t know what those people in the middle are doing . . . I think that group of people on the right are singing in a choir . . . What are those little things at the top? . . . It’s hard to see up there.”
Our fifty-minute period was almost done. “I think we know a lot more about this mural than we did when we walked in this morning. Do you think we’ve seen all there is to see?”
Kate laughed and said, “I think there might be a few things we haven’t picked up yet.”
“My point here is that we look at something, and think we’ve seen it, but when we start looking for things, we understand that there’s a lot more to see.”
I was starting to sound like Obi Wan Kenobi, so I decided to wrap it up. “Keep your drawings handy. We’ll refer to them again. I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
Someone called out, “Are we meeting here again?”
“No. In the classroom.”
They packed up and started leaving. Kate approached me and said, “I’ve been at this school three years, and I’ve never been in here and seen this mural. It’s really interesting.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“If we’re not going to meet in here again, is there some way I could come in and look at it some more?”
These were words every teacher wants to hear. “I might come in Thursday afternoon to study it,” I said. “You’re welcome to join me.”
“Thanks, I will,” she said. With that, she turned and headed for the door.
Devon also stopped to talk to me. “Great class, Dr. Noonan. I really learned a lot.”
From the door Kate made a loud kissing sound, laughed, and walked out. I was surprised to see Devon look embarrassed at having his tactic exposed.
“Thank you, Devon,” I said. “I’m glad you learned a lot. I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
He trotted off toward the door like a golden retriever with a tennis ball.
I dropped my backpack and shopping bag in my office and walked over to the snack bar in the Student Services Center, which looked out on a lawn that was bounded by the library and the Old Classroom Building. Both of those buildings dated from the 1920s and had been designed in the collegiate gothic style. The pointed arches and carved ornaments gave the impression of a medieval European town. By contrast the Student Services Center, which had been built in the 1970s, had the feeling of a shopping mall.
After eating most of my yogurt and banana, I called campus security. The woman I had spoken with was no longer answering the phone, so I had to give my name and explain why I had called earlier.
I heard a keyboard rattling before the officer said, “Yes, I have the incident report in front of me. Patrol was dispatched at 10:03. The officer reported the words, ‘JAP OUT,’ spray-painted on the hood of a yellow Toyota Tercel. A photograph is attached to the report. What is your question?”
“I’m new to this campus, so I’m wondering what security does in a situation like this.”
“In any instance of vandalism, we increase patrols in the area. We’ll also search our database for similar recent reports to see if there’s a pattern.”
“I see. Have there been other instances of messages like this spray-painted anywhere on campus?”
“I don’t have that information in front of me. If you like, Dr. Noonan, I can attach a note to this report and have someone give you a call when that’s available.”
I agreed to that suggestion, thanked him, and hung up. I was a little surprised he didn’t address the possibility that this was a hate crime. I needed to think about whether to pursue that angle on top of trying to get three courses on track, learn my way around a new school, and get around to shopping for some winter clothing. I decided for the moment to wait and see what campus security would come up with, but my mind was in such a state that further routine work was out of the question. I packed up and headed back to my Rabbit Hutch. It was time to find out who spray-painted my car.
After a quick change from classroom biz-casual into a tank-top and knit pants with a flannel over shirt, I walked up Montgomery Avenue to the next Rabbit Hutch and knocked on the door. No one answered. The same happened at the next Rabbit Hutch and the one after that.
I turned up Ohio Avenue, which was lined on both sides with duplexes probably built around 1960. These were real houses, with peaked roofs, built of brick. I’d heard these went to couples with or without kids and sometimes to single faculty after they’d been on campus a few years.
After knocking on a few doors I found someone at home, introduced myself, waited for the five-second stare, told her what had happened to my car, and asked if she’d seen anyone who didn’t live in the neighborhood passing by last evening or had heard anyone prowling around during the night. She said she hadn’t, expressed disgust at what had been done to my car, and offered to help in any way she could.
I had the same conversation three more times as I worked my way up one side of Ohio Avenue and down the other, but my luck changed when I came to the next-to-the-last duplex, and the door was answered by an African-American man in his thirties. His black loafers were gleaming, his slacks had a knife-edge crease, and he wore a purple sweater that complemented his dark skin. He was only a few inches taller than me and neither heavy nor thin. He was compact, well-proportioned.
“Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “Nicole Noonan. I’m new here. I live right around the corner.”
His stare took only two seconds. He took my hand, and said, “Lionel Bell. Welcome to the campus.” His smile was warm and wide. “What department are you in?”
“Art. I’m the art historian. You?”
“French. Has your semester started off well?”
“It was going pretty well until I walked outside this morning and saw that someone had spray-painted the hood of my car.”
“I don’t suppose you saw or heard anyone around here last night who shouldn’t have been here.”
He shook his head. “Do you think it happened here on campus?”
“It must have because it wasn’t that way when I drove back from my errands on Saturday and parked next to my Rabbit Hutch.”
“I’m so sorry to hear this.” He stepped back from the doorway, and said, “Would you like to come inside and tell me about it?”
He didn’t have to ask twice.
While he went to get me a glass of water, I took in the solid walls with wood moldings and felt the hardwood floor under my feet. His living room was furnished with a pleasant mix of personal effects and practical items. He had a fine oak armchair of the kind that was standard office furniture in the mid-twentieth century and a loveseat that might have been a family heirloom reupholstered. Other than that, the side tables, storage cubes, and area rug all looked like Ikea furniture, though of higher quality than the Ikea porch furniture I had purchased for my Rabbit Hutch.
Once I was on the loveseat with a glass of water, and he was seated in the chair across from me, he said, “I’ve never heard of this kind of vandalism on campus, and I’ve been here three years. I don’t suppose that’s any consolation.”
“It may not be a simple matter of vandalism. Whoever did it used the spray paint to write ‘JAP OUT’ on my hood.”
That seemed to take his breath away for a moment. He shook his head and said, “I am so sorry to hear this has happened to you, especially when you’ve just arrived on campus. For what it’s worth, I have not experienced any racial harassment here. It can get a little tense when I go into Blanton, but mostly it’s live and let live.”
“What really ticks me off is that my mother’s family is Chinese, not Japanese.”
He did his best to stifle a smile, but it grew and became a chuckle. “Excuse me. It’s really not funny, but I was thinking how disappointing it is when racist vandals don’t do their research.”
That was funny, and we shared a good laugh. I got up to leave.
He had such a quiet way of listening, I felt free to bring up the next problem I had to face. “Do you know anything about getting spray paint off a car?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said as we walked to the door. “If you end up having to take it to Chillicothe and leave it for the day, I’ll be happy to drive over with you and give you a ride back to campus. And if there’s anything else I can do to help you get settled . . .”
Smooth move. I appreciated that. “Actually, there is something. I’ve been buying my groceries at the market in Blanton, and they don’t seem to have some things I’m looking for. I wonder if you might know the closest place to shop for some good cheeses. I’d love to get some genuine Roquefort. I’d also like to pick up some interesting sausages and pates, and I haven’t found any place with a good wine selection.”
Usually I don’t make up things like this off the top of my head in the middle of a conversation, but he had given me a good opening, and I hated to waste it.
He smiled. “You won’t find any of that this side of Columbus.”
“Well, Columbus it is then. I’ve been meaning to go there anyway and visit the Museum of Art.”
“It’s worth a visit. There are some significant pieces.”
“I’m glad to hear that. If you recall the names of any good shops, would you email them to me? I’m in the campus directory.”
I held my breath as I waited to see if he would take the bait.
Lionel pursed his lips before saying, “If you’re free this Saturday, we could go up together and visit the museum. I’d be happy to take you around to some of my favorite shops afterward.”
It is critical at moments like this to appear neither too surprised nor too delighted. “It’s very generous of you to give up your Saturday for me.”
“Not at all. I make the trip most weekends.”
He offered to pick me up at ten o’clock so we could get there in time for lunch at the museum.
I walked to the next duplex, enjoying visions of an indoor picnic on Saturday evening: a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a cheese board with interesting selections, and one lovely French professor beside me. Talking Lionel into a date was impulsive, but it felt right. Although I wasn’t looking to start a relationship, there was no reason to swear off male companionship for the next year or two, and Lionel seemed like the perfect guy to provide it.
There was no one home on either side of the last duplex, but at the first Rabbit Hutch, around the corner on Montgomery Avenue, a woman about my age answered the door and introduced herself as a new hire in the English department. By the time I had explained my situation, I could tell by the look in her eyes she knew something.
“About two a. m., I heard tires on the gravel and an engine idling,” she said. “My bedroom window faces the corner so anything going by at night wakes me up. I got freaked out when I heard footsteps, and got up to take a look. I heard a door slam. When I looked out, I saw a white pickup truck backing up Ohio Avenue.”
My heart sped up and I started breathing as if I had reached my stride on my morning run. It was easy to visualize a man jumping out of a truck, trotting down the road, spray-painting my car, and high-tailing it back. He could have done it in less than a minute.
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s the first solid piece of information I’ve gotten. I don’t suppose you noticed anything else about the truck. Was it new or old?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know anything about trucks. Its headlights were off.”
“That’s interesting. Could you see the license plate?”
I thanked her and said I would give this information to the campus police. She agreed to speak to them if they wanted to check.
I found no one else at home until I got to Abbie’s Rabbit Hutch at the far end of Montgomery Avenue next to a grove of birches. I told her what had happened and what the new English professor on the corner had told me.
“One name comes to mind,” she said, “but it doesn’t make sense.”
Thinking back to my lunch with Abbie at the deli in Blanton, I knew who she had in mind. “Huey Littleton?”
“Does he drive a white pickup truck?”
She took a moment to think. “I can’t remember.”
“I thought you said there are rules around here so people don’t run into people they don’t like.”
“That’s why this doesn’t make sense. If Huey came onto the campus to do this, he really crossed a line. I don’t see why he would risk attracting attention here when he could have caught up with you somewhere else.”
“Maybe the campus police will pay him some attention when I tell them about the white pickup truck.”
Abbie looked skeptical. “I don’t think their reach extends that far.”
I was starting to feel angry again. “There has to be a way I can find out if Huey Littleton has a white truck and if he came by here last night.”
“Whatever you do, don’t go into Blanton looking for him. You do not want to cross paths with that man.”
“Alright then, I’ll keep calling campus security, and, if they won’t call the sheriff I will.”
She sighed. “I wish this hadn’t happened right at the beginning of your first semester.”
“It’s not all bad,” I replied. “Knocking on doors got me a date for Saturday.”
“You’re kidding! Who with?”
“Lionel Bell. Lives right around the corner.”
“Ah, yes, Lionel. Well done. What’s that saying about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat?”
“How about you?” I asked. “Do you have a boyfriend on campus?”
Abbie shook her head. “I’m not interested in guys.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
She smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
On Thursday afternoon, I got to the chapel a little before two thirty. The afternoon light was not strong enough for photos, so I got out the sketches and notes I had made on Sunday. While I was reviewing them, Kate Conrad came in, placed a chair for herself on the other side of the room, and started sketching and making notes.
The three scenes that made up the bottom row—working in the orchard, harvesting wheat, and working in the kitchen—formed a panorama of the community feeding itself. The artist put it at ground level, so the viewers could stand face-to-face with the workers—with themselves, really, thinking of the original viewers. In the central scene, only one face was visible. The farmer wearing green pants in the middle of the harvesting scene looked directly at the viewer. All the other workers turned away or had their faces partly obscured by the brim of a hat or a raised arm.
I heard footsteps coming from the entrance and looked over my shoulder in time to see a man coming through the door. As I got up and walked toward him, he said, “Don’t let me disturb you. I saw the door open and thought I would come over and see who was here.”
“Good afternoon,” I said, “I’m Nicole Noonan.”
“Jacob Schumacher,” he said, extending his hand. No five-second stare from him.
This was the man Abbie had told me to have on my side, the chairman of the history department, whose ancestors were depicted in the mural I was studying, the man with whom I had made an appointment for next Tuesday. He was of medium height and a bit overweight. He wore his brown hair combed straight back from a hairline, which had receded very little though he must have been in his sixties. His mustache and goatee were trimmed so close that I wondered why he bothered letting them grow. He wore a blue blazer and gray slacks.
“I’m glad you dropped by,” I said. “Maybe you can help me with some of the history behind this mural.”
“I will if I can,” he said. “I haven’t been in here in years.”
I filled him in on my observation that the face of only one of the workers was fully visible. As I spoke, I noticed that in the preaching scene, which was part of the upper row, only the preacher’s face was completely visible. All the people in the congregation either had their backs to the viewer or had their faces partially blocked by someone next to them or by an open prayer book.
When I finished explaining, I turned to Jacob and saw him smiling and nodding. I knew the feeling. The pleasure that comes from a new idea is the chief reward for intellectual work.
I glanced back at the mural and saw something else. “The faces of the farmer and the preacher have a similar look. Both have long noses. I wonder why. Sometimes artists put their own faces into a crowd scene.”
“And there’s another one in the orchard,” said Jacob. He walked to the wall and pointed to it. Again, the man with the long nose faced forward as in the preaching and harvesting scenes. “I think it’s Herr Fuchs, the founder, Felix Fuchs. Have you seen photos of him? He had rather a long nose.”
Kate, who had been walking back and forth, looking at the crown of the tree near the roofline, walked over to join us.
“This is my student, Kate Conrad,” I said to Jacob. “Kate, this is Dr. Schumacher, chairman of the history department.”
After they greeted one another Kate eyed the things I had taken out of my backpack. “Hey, Dr. Noonan,” she said. “Are those your binoculars? Could I borrow them for a second?”
“Sure,” I said. She went back to studying the details near the roofline.
Jacob smiled and nodded to show he was impressed with Kate’s eagerness.
We continued our conversation as we walked outdoors “I’ll let you return to your studies,” said Jacob. “Thank you for sharing your work. I’ll see you again when we meet next week.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, “and thank you for helping me with the history of the commune. If I manage to publish an article about the mural, I’ll acknowledge your contribution.”
“That’s not really necessary,” he said, but I had the feeling he liked the idea.
After class on Friday morning, Kate stayed to talk to me, and of course Devon stayed to talk to her. “Great class, Dr. Noonan,” he said. “Kate, I have to run, but can I pick you up about eight o’clock tonight?”
Kate turned to him with a scowl. “I don’t know. I’ll give you a call.”
“All the usual crowd is going. We’ll probably end up at Marten’s.”
She turned back to me and spoke to him over her shoulder without looking at him. “I said I’ll give you a call.”
“I’m just offering you a ride.”
“If I’m going into town, I’ll walk.”
“Aw, come on. That’s ridiculous,” he said.
She spun around and raised her voice. “Why are you still here? I want to talk to Dr. Noonan. Get lost!”
Devon turned and marched to the door. As he stepped into the corridor, he said, “Bitch!” just loud enough for us to hear.
Kate turned back to me. “Sorry you had to hear that.”
“Seems like it would be a long walk into town,” I said.
“There’s a shortcut through a field from College Avenue. It takes about forty-five minutes.”
“At night? That doesn’t seem very safe.”
She smiled. “We do it all the time. It’s no big deal. I wanted to ask you something. I noticed something kind of cool yesterday in the chapel. It might be a good idea for my paper. I don’t know if I should bring it up in class or if I should talk to you about it.”
“We can discuss it if you wish, but why not try writing down your thoughts about it first. You might be surprised by how far you can take it on your own. Then we’ll talk about it.”
Kate grinned. “Okay. I can do that. I know it will take some research. I might have to ask you for help on that part.”
“That’s okay. Scholars help each other all the time, just like Dr. Schumacher helped me yesterday.”
Kate was nodding now. I could see that this was more than an assignment for her. It seemed she liked the idea that there were people who did this professionally. “I’m going to hit the library this afternoon and see what I can find. If I run into any snags, I’ll shoot you an email.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
Saturday morning I woke up feeling I had a lot to celebrate. I had turned around my art history class and had gotten better acquainted with some of the students. The more I looked at the mural, the more it seemed worthy of scholarly attention. Jacob seemed willing to be a mentor to me when it came to the history of the institution. I had widened my social circle on campus, and that circle now included a man who was willing to spend most of the day with me hunting for good food and good art. I started to believe I could enjoy spending a year or two on this little campus.
Now, if only I could decide what to wear for our trip to Columbus. It couldn’t be the business casual I wore to teach every day, but it couldn’t be too dressy since it was an afternoon date. My options were limited since I had brought little with me from home, intending to buy clothes appropriate for the cold weather ahead, and I hadn’t yet gotten around to shopping. My green flare dress would be fine. I could add a shawl to shift the color palette, and wear some dressy shoes, for a change.
Accessorizing was well underway when my phone rang. The call was from a local number not in my contacts list.
“Good morning,” said a baritone voice. “This is Sheriff Mason Adams, Edwards County Sheriff’s Department, calling to speak with Dr. Nicole Noonan.”
A call from the sheriff? Was he finally going to investigate the vandalism of my car? “Yes, I’m Nicole Noonan.”
“Doctor, it’s important that I speak with you this morning. May I see you at your office or at your home on campus around eleven o’clock?”
“I have plans to go up to Columbus this morning. What’s this about?”
He hesitated a few seconds before answering. “Have you read the email that the dean of students sent to everyone on campus?”
The dean of students was involved? Had someone discovered that a student targeted me because of my race? “No. I haven’t checked my email this morning.”
“Well, if you wouldn’t mind reading the dean’s email, it will explain everything. I am sorry to insist, but this urgent. I have your office as room 333 in the Arts and Humanities Building. Will you meet me there at eleven?”
I agreed, hung up, and opened my laptop.
Urgent? Why would the sheriff and the dean treat this matter as urgent after doing nothing for almost a week?
The dean’s email was written with professional detachment, as such messages always are. It hit all the right notes, giving an objective view of the situation, but there was no getting away from the terrible news it brought. Kate Conrad was dead.
Back in my bedroom my dress lay on the bed. The shawl . . . the purse . . . the shoes . . . Why had I worried about such trivial things?
I couldn’t believe what I had just read in the dean’s email, so I read it again. “ . . . inform you of the death of Kate Conrad . . . investigation by the county sheriff . . .”
My gut felt all watery. I sat on the side of the bed, rubbed my face with both hands, and took deep breaths. That seemed to help the nausea.
Healthy young women don’t just die. Sure, there are rare diseases, and exotic infections, and lightning can strike, but . . . Kate?
I read the dean’s email again. It said nothing about how she died.
After class yesterday, when Devon tried to make a date with her, Kate said she might walk into town. Maybe she was hit by a car.
I had to know.
I called the sheriff. “The email says a student died but doesn’t say how. What happened?”
“I’ll explain that when I meet with you.”
“Was there an accident on the highway?”
“Dr. Noonan, we like to have these conversations in person. I will see you at your office at eleven.”
I felt a fury rise from inside me. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. That’s not a good time for me.”
“Doctor, I’m sure you understand that law enforcement officers depend on cooperation from the citizens we’re trying to protect.”
“Why can’t you just answer my question?”
“If eleven o’clock doesn’t work for you, I could come by at ten.”
He sounded bored. There was no way to make a dent in him. “All right. I’ll be at my office at ten.”
I hung up and called Lionel. “Would you mind if we left for Columbus at eleven instead of ten? We could still have a late lunch at the museum’s cafe.”
“That will be fine,” he said. “Are you feeling alright? You sound a bit—I’m not sure—perplexed?”
“I just got a call from the county sheriff. He needs to speak with me. Have you seen the email from the dean of students?”
“Yes, about the death of that student. Did you know her?”
I had to clear my throat before I could say, “She was in my art history class.”
“I’m so sorry, Nicole. Are you sure you feel up to our trip today?”
“I’m not sure about anything right now, but I think it would do me good to get off campus. I need to spend some time in a city.”
“All right, then. I’ll pick you up at eleven.”
While doing my hair and makeup for the day, I remembered the cheerful way Kate called out, “Hey, Dr. Noonan!” She enjoyed learning and she enjoyed life. How could that have ended?
I needed answers. I needed something to make sense. I threw on a sweater, jeans, and running shoes and headed out to meet the sheriff.
My office on the third floor of Arts and Humanities had a window overlooking the downward slope of a wooded hillside. Sitting at my desk, I saw some pale-yellow spots among the wave of green treetops, my first glimpse of autumn color.
I had just fired up my laptop and was trying to keep myself busy when I heard a knock. I looked up to see a man the size of tree trunk standing in my doorway. Almost everyone looks tall to me, but even allowing for that this man was mighty impressive.
“Dr. . . . Noonan?” He got points for originality: putting the five-second stare between “Doctor” and “Noonan.”
“Yes,” I said. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Sheriff Mason Adams, Edwards County Sheriff’s Department.”
He took the chair next to my desk, looked for a place to put his hat, and ended up resting it on his lap. Even sitting down, he looked tall.
“How can I help you, sheriff?”
“We’re investigating the death of Kate Conrad. The dean of students said you were one of her professors and gave me your name and phone number.”
“Yes. Kate was in my art history class.”
The sheriff wrote in his notebook before speaking again. “Now then, we would like to know anything you can tell us about her work as a student, her friends, activities on campus, and so forth.”
“How did she die?”
“Until we’ve completed our investigation, I can’t say. . . .”
“Where was she found?”
The sheriff raised his eyebrows, and I had a feeling he did not do that very often. His crew cut, clean shave, crisp uniform, erect posture, and rock-solid physique suggested he could have been on a Marine Corps recruiting poster twenty years ago. “All of that information will be made available through the department’s public information officer. Now then, how many students are in this class of yours?”
Abbie had told me that in this rural county people at the college, especially professors, were treated with extra respect. I decided to test that theory. I cleared my face of expression and stared at the bridge of the sheriff’s nose, certain I could wait as long as he could.
He glanced away and looked out at the hillside below my office window. “Dr. Noonan, I’m asking for your cooperation.”
“Cooperation means we work together.”
He kept his eyes on the woods outside as he considered his options. “The victim was found lying along Route 212 early this morning. A local farmer saw the body, stopped, and called 911.”
Route 212 was the continuation of College Avenue after it left campus. “Was she close to a footpath that crosses a field?”
“Yes, ma’am. She was about thirty yards from there. Now, I think you’d better tell me why you would ask that.”
“Some students use that as a shortcut to walk into Blanton.”
“I’m aware of that. Do you have reason to believe the vic . . . uh, Ms. Conrad may have used that path last night?”
“Yesterday afternoon, I heard her tell another student she might walk into town in the evening.”
“Who was this other student?”
I hesitated, unsure about whether to put Devon on the sheriff’s radar, but sensed that refusing to name him would arouse greater suspicion. “His name is Devon Manus. He’s also in my art history class.”
“Did there appear to be any reason why she would have told him this?”
“He had offered her a ride into town along with some of their friends.”
“So a male student, Devon Manus, offered her a ride into town last evening, and she said she would prefer to walk?”
“That was the gist of it.”
The sheriff read over what he had just written before asking, “Were they arguing? Did they seem angry with one another?”
“I think that’s fair to say.”
“How well acquainted were they?”
“I only met them two weeks ago when classes started, but I had the impression there was a romantic relationship or maybe the beginnings of one.”
The sheriff made notes. “Was Ms. Conrad enrolled in any of your other courses?”
“Did you ever hear her speak about any other students she may have been friends with?”
I’d had it with the guessing game. “Sheriff, I don’t understand why you’re asking about everyone she knew. How will that help you find out who was driving the car?”
“Which car is that, ma’am?”
“The car that hit her.”
“Why do you believe she was struck by a car?”
“I . . . Isn’t that what happened? You said she was lying along the road. If she was walking back to campus at night . . .”
The sheriff closed his notebook. “We haven’t determined the cause of death. Until we do, it would be best not to start rumors. That can only make our job more difficult.” He got up to leave.
I stood up too, and that’s when it became clear I was about eye-level with the badge on his chest. “But you can tell from the condition of the body if she was hit by a car, can’t you?” I stood as straight as I could and crossed my arms over my chest, doing my best to look imposing.
He looked down at me for a moment, and his official pose seemed to soften just a bit. “There was a massive head trauma. That appears to be the only injury, but that’s for the medical examiner to decide. Until he does, there’s no use guessing about what killed her. I would ask you, please, do not circulate that bit of information.”
He thanked me and left.
If a person were hit by a car and knocked down, her head would hit the pavement, but how could she not be injured anywhere else? It sounded more like someone had deliberately struck Kate. The idea that someone had killed her—that she had been murdered—made this so much worse. I felt sick to my stomach.
Something else about this conversation with the sheriff bothered me. When I gave him Devon’s name, he didn’t ask me to spell it, and he didn’t pause before writing it down. He must have already heard it from someone else.
I was dressed and waiting when Lionel parked in front of my Rabbit Hutch and got out of his car, looking sharp in gray slacks, a lemon yellow knit shirt, and a blue blazer. If not for the catastrophe of Kate’s death, a trip off campus with this man would have sent my spirits soaring.
His eyes scanned the small, wood-frame building, and he smiled as I walked out to meet him.
“This takes me back,” he said.
“In a good way?”
He considered that for a moment. “I am not unhappy with what I was able to make of those years.”
I’m sure there was great truth to what he was saying, but my brain wasn’t up to it just then.
We left the campus on College Avenue. Where it became Route 212, I looked to the right so I could see where the path across the field joined the road. When I saw it coming, I looked to the left and caught a glimpse of crime-scene tape on the saplings that grew on the other side.
Lionel pulled over at a wide spot covered with gravel.
“Why did you stop?” I asked.
“Was there something you wanted to see back there?”
I turned and looked out the rear window of the car. “The sheriff said she was found back there, lying along the road.”
Lionel turned the car around, drove back, and stopped near the path. We got out and walked to the spot marked by the tape.
There were lots of footprints in the dirt alongside the road but not much else. I wasn’t sure what I had expected to see. Still I was glad I had come to this spot where she breathed her last. I took a quiet moment to remember her enthusiasm, her intelligence, and her innocence.
When I started back to the car with Lionel, an alarm went off somewhere in the back of my mind. “Something’s wrong,” I said.
Lionel turned to me. “What is it?”
“Why was she walking on this side of the road?”
Lionel looked back and forth, assessing the situation. “I don’t know.”
“It was after dark. She should have been walking on the other side of the road, so she faced the oncoming traffic.”
He nodded. “She might still be alive if she had.”
“No. What I mean is, she had no reason to cross to this side. If she came from the path over there, she would have turned left and started walking toward campus on that side of the road. It would have been simpler, and it would have felt safer. Why would she bother to cross to this side of the road?”
“Maybe someone in the woods on this side called out to her, and she came over to join them.”
“That’s possible, if it was someone she knew.”
“Or maybe a car came along, headed toward the campus, and the driver offered her a ride.”
“Also possible, and again it would have to be someone she recognized. That means she probably was killed by someone she knew.”
“You think someone killed her?”
I remembered the sheriff’s warning not to repeat the information he had given me. “I don’t know. Let’s get in the car.”
Lionel found a driveway, turned the car around, and again drove away from campus, toward the highway. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
“I don’t know what to think.”
We were quiet during the rest of the drive into Blanton. As we drove down Main Street and crossed Brook and Maple, I found myself scanning the sidewalks to see if Huey Littleton was around. If he stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of an Asian woman in “his” town, I hated to imagine how he might react to an Asian and an African-American in a car together.
“You’ve had a very hard week,” said Lionel.
After a sigh I said, “Until this happened, it was a good week. I met my art history class in the chapel to study the mural, and the students responded to it really well.”
“I’m glad to hear that. What I meant was this tragedy comes on top of having your car vandalized. Two traumatic experiences in a few days is a lot to absorb.”
“Now that you mention it, I should have asked the sheriff about my car. But it doesn’t seem so important now. I can’t believe I was so upset about it earlier in the week.”
“I can see why you were. You were the victim of a crime. Frankly I’m feeling a bit anxious about two violent incidents in our community in just a few days. In my three years at Fuchs, nothing like either of these has happened. I’m starting to ask ‘Why now?’ though I know there’s no answer. These things occur randomly.”
Lionel’s question resonated deep inside me. “Now that you mention it, my car got vandalized, and my race insulted, and Kate was my student. I seem to be the common element.”
“I didn’t mean to suggest that,” he said. “No, you shouldn’t think this is about you. The tagging and the race-baiting perhaps, but not the death of this student. That was probably a hit-and-run, the kind of thing everyone has worried about for years with students walking into Blanton at night.”
But if it wasn’t an accident—if Kate was murdered—I faced the horrifying possibility that someone, who did their best to make my life miserable by spray-painting my car, also went so far as to take a student’s life just to . . . To do what? To scare me off?
“You’re right,” I said to him. “I’m probably overreacting. Maybe we should talk about something else.”
As we drove up to Columbus, we had the usual getting-acquainted conversation, academic edition. He told me he was from New York City, specifically Harlem. His family had lived there for four generations. He went to Howard University and did his graduate work at the Sorbonne in Paris.
I was equally forthcoming, describing myself as the daughter of a Chinese-American mother who worked as a librarian for the San Francisco Public Library, and an Irish-American father who worked in construction. After graduating from San Francisco State, I went on to the University of California, Santa Barbara, for grad school.
Lunch at the museum cafe overlooking the sculpture garden was like breathing pure oxygen. After lunch, we walked through the permanent collection, and I made mental notes to return. I liked the way they hung the work of local artists alongside that of recognized masters to invite comparison. The collection was especially rich in the works of George Bellows, who is both a native of Columbus and widely recognized.
After the museum, we drove to a neighborhood called the Short North, where our tour of Lionel’s favorite gourmet food shops left me giggling with delight. At his suggestion, we stopped at a neighborhood Italian restaurant for an early dinner. I was surprised at how hungry I was.
I felt a deep satisfaction as we negotiated the freeway interchanges and got back on Route 23, headed south. We discussed paintings in the museum and scenes from favorite films, allowing comfortable silences in which our thoughts could ripen.
After we bypassed Chillicothe, the lights from towns became fewer and farther between, and it felt like we were driving into a dark tunnel. The isolation that came with living on a rural campus weighed more heavily on me than when we had set out that morning. The horror of Kate’s death came back double.
When Lionel stopped the car in front of my Hutch, I said, “Please come in for a glass of wine. It’s the least I can do to thank you for a wonderful afternoon and evening.”
Lionel smiled before replying to my invitation. “That’s a lovely thought, but . . .”
I saved him the trouble of thinking up an excuse that wouldn’t hurt my feelings. “I’m talking about a glass of wine and a little conversation while you’re not having to drive the car. Then I’ll send you on your way.”
He nodded. “All right then.”
In the Rabbit Hutches, when you step through the front door you’re in the living room, which is also the kitchen and dining room. One could call it a great room, but fifteen by fifteen is not all that great.
Lionel glanced around and smiled. “I love what you’ve done with the place.”
What I had done was to furnish my Hutch on a budget with an eye to practicality. That meant a pair of canvas-sling beach chairs by the front window, a folding cafe table and two chairs by the back window, and two shelving units on the sidewall. Except for the floor lamp it was all outdoor furniture. With that in mind I had skipped getting a rug and instead had visited a large gardening store where I found artificial turf available in doormat-size pieces. I had stitched a few of them together and had a little green lawn in the middle of the room.
We hung our coats on hooks by the door, and I poured two glasses of wine while Lionel stepped into the other room to use the facilities.
When he returned and sat in the beach chair opposite me, I asked, “How do you do it?”
“Live here. You left New York, where you were a subway ride away from anything you could want. In San Francisco, I can take a bus or a streetcar to museums, festivals, theater, and baseball games, not to mention restaurants and every kind of store. Here, it’s a long drive to Columbus, and when you get there it feels like you’re just visiting. I thought going there today would help, but it only makes me feel more isolated.”
Lionel tilted his head to one side and rested his eyes on my face. “I know what you mean. My first semester was like that. Think of it this way: When Thoreau moved to his one-room cabin at Walden Pond to live deliberately, he stayed two years; then he moved back to town.”
I was going to have to get used to Lionel thinking on a plane I only glimpsed from time to time. When the further implication of what he said hit me, I asked, “So you’re moving on?”
“I’m remaining aware of other opportunities. Meanwhile, my time of living deliberately has stretched to three years. I’m probably better for it, but I don’t think of it as a permanent situation.”
“I don’t either, but the job market in art history is not encouraging.”
“It’s not encouraging in modern languages either.” He sipped some wine. “Also, for what it’s worth, you’re doing a better job with your first semester than I did with mine.”
“I can’t imagine how.”
“With your Rabbit Hutch, for one thing,” he said, as his eyes swept the room. “It would seem you have a sense of humor about your situation.”
“Well, yes, the artificial grass was a whim, but after losing Kate I’m not sure how many creative solutions I have left in me.”
“I’ve never lost a student that way,” said Lionel. “I can’t imagine what it’s like.”
“She was extraordinary. When I was a teaching assistant, I saw hundreds of undergraduates during office hours and helped them write their papers and prepare for their exams. Most of them just wanted to know what they had to do to get a grade. Only a few of them showed curiosity about the subject and an eagerness to look further.” As I spoke I felt my spirits sink. “I’ve already beat the odds by getting one like that in my first semester of full-time teaching. What are the odds of getting another one anytime soon?”
“Maybe better than you think. Good teachers attract good students, whatever the subject.”
“Thank you. I hope you’re right. I just noticed how selfish I sound. Kate lost her life. Her parents lost a daughter. Compared to that, losing my star pupil is a minor disappointment.”
“Would you feel the same if you had just found out she was transferring to another school?”
Good question. “I’d still be disappointed, but I’d be happy for her if she had a better opportunity.”
“So you’re not being selfish. You’re feeling both her loss and your own disappointment.”
Everything about this conversation made me want to spend more time with Lionel.
He drank the last of his wine. “Please call on me if you need to. Will you be alright?”
“Thank you, I’ll be fine. I’ll probably call home tomorrow. Talking to Mom and Dad helps me see the big picture. And there’s Abbie. Do you know her? Abbie Krauss?”
Lionel nodded. “Yes. I got to know her when I lived in the Rabbit Hutches. I like Abbie.”
“She’s been a real friend from day one. I don’t know how I would have gotten started here without her.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Lionel as he stood up.
I stood up too and had to hold on for a second. The wine had gone to my head.
Lionel plucked his jacket from the hook by the door and folded it over his arm. “This has been delightful. We’ll have to do it again.”
“Yes. Again, soon,”
As I got ready for bed, I was glad he let me know he was “remaining aware of other possibilities,” job-wise. Obviously that meant we weren’t starting a serious relationship. If he hadn’t been clear about that, I might have found it easy to get attached to a guy who took good care of himself, appreciated the finer things in life, listened carefully to what I had to say, and looked upon his fellow human beings with kindness and generosity.
On Sunday morning I called Mom and Dad as I had every Sunday morning since moving to Ohio.
“Hi Nicole,” said Mom. “Wait a minute. I’ll get your father. Terry! Nicole’s on the phone.”
I waited, listening to footsteps and chairs being pulled out at the kitchen table.
“Okay, honey, I’m going to put you on speakerphone now.”
All my phone calls with them started this way.
“How’d your classes go this week, darlin’?” asked Dad.
“Much better, Dad. The students really liked the mural. It got them thinking. And it got me thinking too. I might write an article on it.”
“Now, you see, Linda?” I could tell Dad had turned away from the phone to speak to Mom. “I told you. The girl’s a genius. By this time next year she’ll be in charge of the art department.”
Although I couldn’t hear it, I knew that Mom was patting Dad’s hand to make him settle down. “Nicole, Honey, how are you? You sound a little down.”
“Well . . .” I choked up and cleared my throat. “I am pretty upset. Yesterday morning I found out one of my students was killed Friday night.”
After a few seconds of silence, Mom asked, “Do they know how it happened?”
“Not yet. She was walking back to campus at night. Students go into town on the weekends. She might have been hit by a car. She was found lying by the road yesterday morning.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”
Dad said, “I don’t see how the college can allow students to be out walking along a road at night.”
Mom replied for me. “Terry, they can’t lock them up.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” he said, “but there has to be a way.”
“Actually, Dad, sometimes the students drive into Blanton. In fact I heard another student offer her a ride, and she turned him down.”
“Well, there you are. You make a rule: No walking into town. Go by car only.”
Now I actually could hear Mom patting Dad’s hand. “Honey,” she said to me, “Don’t try to handle this all by yourself. Have you talked to your friend about this? What’s her name?”
“Abbie. She’s in Pittsburgh this weekend, but I’ve already talked about it with Lionel.”
The silence this time was longer than when I told them my student was killed.
“I’m sorry, honey, with whom?”
“Lionel Bell. We drove up to Columbus yesterday and visited the art museum and did a little shopping.”
“Is this someone you met on campus?”
“Yes. He’s a professor too. He teaches French.”
“That’s wonderful, darlin’,” said Dad. “I’m glad you’re dating again.”
“It wasn’t really a date.” I decided not to mention we had dinner.
Mom said, “He sounds very nice.”
“Mom, all I said was he’s a French professor. You don’t know anything about him.”
“I meant it was nice of him to go up to the museum with you. Are you seeing him again?”
“We haven’t made plans yet. I’ll let you know.”
“How’s your car running?” asked Dad.
When I got the job at Fuchs, Dad went online and bought me a used car from a dealer in Columbus so I could take a cab from the airport and pick it up. He insisted it was a present for finishing my PhD. I insisted I would pay them back once I was earning a regular salary, but, unless I learned to stretch my paycheck further, it was going to be a gift.
“It’s running great, Dad, but I do have one problem. Monday morning, as I was leaving for class, I noticed somebody used black spray paint on the hood.”
“That’s terrible,” said Mom.
“That’s too bad,” said Dad. “I wouldn’t have thought there’d be much of that living way out in the country like you are.”
“No,” I said. “In fact, Lionel said he’d never heard of it happening on campus, and he’s been here three years.”
“Alright then, I’ll tell you what to do.” At moments like this, Dad sounded like a coach rallying the team. “Take your car to a place that does auto detailing and get it buffed out properly. You have to protect the finish. Get an estimate and I’ll send you a check.”
“That’s not necessary, Dad.”
“No arguments. In fact, I’ll call a shop here in town and get an idea of what it costs. I’ll send a check today. If it’s not enough, you let me know.”
“Nicole, honey,” said Mom, “I don’t understand. Were other cars vandalized?”
“Not that I know of.”
“So just yours? Why would someone pick your car?”
After hesitating, I decided it was best to get it over with. I held the phone away from my ear and said, “Well, I’m the only Asian on campus, and whoever did it used the spray paint to write ‘JAP OUT.’”
Mom’s voice shifted into operatic mode. Even through my phone’s tiny speaker, it was deafening. “Oh, my god, Nicole! Have you called the police?”
“Campus security. Yes.”
“They’re not real police.”
“Yes, they are mom, and they’re right here on campus.”
“What are they doing about it?”
“They’re patrolling the area and checking for reports of other incidents.”
“I mean, what are they doing to protect you?”
“That’s all they can do, Mom.”
“That’s not good enough. You’re not safe there, Nicole. If somebody wants you out of there, who knows how far they’ll go?”
Dad’s baritone voice came through the phone, sounding especially mellow. “What’s the name of the head of security there, darlin’?”
“Why? What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to call your Uncle Pat.”
“Dad! No!” Dad’s brother, Pat, was a twenty-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department.
“He can talk to your man there on campus. He’ll know what to say.”
I stifled my panic and did my best to sound reasonable. “No, Dad, I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
“It’s just a professional courtesy. They do it all the time.”
“No, they don’t, Dad. I’m pretty sure no cop in San Francisco has ever called a campus security officer in Ohio to tell him how to do his job.”
“That’s not what I’m saying, darlin’.”
Mom came back on the line. “Nicole, honey, you can’t expect us to do nothing. We have to know your safe.”
There was a pause, during which, I knew, Mom and Dad were looking at each other silently deciding who would make the next move. Mom won the toss.
“Nicole, you know your father and I have supported you in studying art history.”
“We just want you to do whatever makes you happy, darlin’.”
I leaned back in my chair, resigned to what was coming. “Yes, I know.”
“We even supported you moving to Ohio for this job, even though it means we hardly ever see you.”
“I know, Mom. You two have been really great about it.”
“But now, I think, we need a different plan.”
I knew exactly what the different plan was, but there was no point in saying so, because I was going to hear about it again no matter what I said.
“Honey, you could come back here and go to SF State. With all the education you already have you could probably get a degree in computer science or something in two years, and there are jobs all over the Bay Area begging for someone bright and creative like you.”
“I know, Mom. We’ve had this conversation. I like art history. Since I’m just starting out, this was the only academic job I could get. I won’t be here forever, but it’s a start.”
“But you could do your art history here. There are the museums and the galleries downtown. You could work part time while you’re going to school.”
“Mom, I like research. And that means an academic job. At least for now.”
“Honey, just promise me you’ll think about it. You could have the in-law suite downstairs. That way you’d be independent. We wouldn’t bother you.”
Maybe there would come a day when Mom and I would compare notes on the meaning of the word “independent,” but this was not that day. “I promise I’ll think about it. I have to go now.”
“Alright, but don’t wait until next Sunday to call.”
“I won’t, Mom.”
“Your mother’s right, darlin’. We have to know you’re safe.”
“I’ll call and let you know I’m safe.”
After several more rounds of reassurance, we all got off the phone.
Although that blew up in my face, I was glad I’d told them. Deep down, I’d known they would overreact, but that was okay. It felt good to know they cared so much. And they weren’t wrong. I couldn’t let myself be a sitting duck.
To stop thinking about it, I gave myself something to do. I wrote a letter to Kate’s parents, introducing myself, saying she was a brilliant student and a delightful young woman, and expressing gratitude for knowing her if only for such a short time. I told them that, though I couldn’t imagine the depth of their grief, I was grieving her loss as well. Like all such notes, it seemed inadequate. I hoped it would bring them more comfort than pain.
Class on Monday morning was tough. With Kate gone, there were ten students left in my art history class, and only nine showed up. Devon wasn’t there. I didn’t recall anything from my graduate seminars about what to say when one of your students has died, especially when the class is small enough for everyone to notice.
I began by saying, “By now you have all heard of the death of Kate Conrad.” I saw a range of reactions on their faces. Some looked sad and glanced toward the chair where Kate had sat. Others were curious about where I was going with this. When I said, “We will miss her contributions to our discussions,” one of them gasped. Apparently, she had just figured out that the student named in the dean’s email was one of the two absent from class. Ursula Wilmot sat ready as always to take notes, her eyes focused on something outside the window. She seemed to be waiting for me to get through this and get to work.
I fell back on the old chronological survey method. We talked about the Greeks and Romans, I showed some slides, and pointed out some important passages in the textbook (hint: this will be on the test). Ursula Wilmot was smiling by the end of class.
As I packed up after class, Byron Hawley approached, his t-shirt decorated with fresh evidence of his labors in the painting studio, and said, “I heard your car got spray-painted.”
I wondered if gossip really did travel faster on a small campus than it did at a large university, or if it only seemed that way because it had less distance to travel. “Yes,” I replied. “Do you know anything about that?”
“No. I just heard about it from some people in the department.”
“I see. And why are you bringing this up?”
“I can help you with that,” he said.
“Do you know of a place where I can have it removed?”
“I can remove it for you.”
I stopped packing and took a fresh look at him. “Have you done this before?”
“Yeah, a couple of times. I’ve done some street art. Some guys accused me of painting over their mural, which wasn’t true. Well, actually one time I did. Anyway, they tagged my car, and I got it off with acetone.”
“Does that damage the car’s finish?’
“No. It’s basically nail polish remover. You have to be careful not to go too far, but it’s really not a problem.”
When he said, “really not a problem,” I heard “might be a problem.” “Thank you,” I replied, “but I think I should have this done professionally.”
He shook his head. “They’re going to charge you an arm and a leg.”
“I’d rather not risk it.”
“Really, there’s no risk. You can look at my car. It’s in the student lot. The finish is fine.”
If that was true, this was worth considering “How much would you charge?”
“I wouldn’t charge you anything. I don’t know how much spray paint you have on there, but I’m sure it would take less than an hour.”
“Byron, it’s very nice of you to offer, but I can’t let you work for me for free.”
He looked away for a moment as if deciding whether to go on. “I want to do it for free because I heard what they wrote on your car, and that’s not right. You’re new here, and I don’t want you to think we’re that kind of school.”
This attitude was refreshing, but I didn’t want to take advantage of him. “I’m not sure it was a student that did it. In fact, I doubt it.”
“It doesn’t matter who did it. We have to stand up to it as a community.”
I certainly didn’t want to discourage that kind of thinking, and I hated the thought of paying an arm and a leg. “Are you sure you can do this without damaging the car’s finish?”
“Thank you, Byron, that would be great.” I felt as if a weight was lifted from my shoulders.
I told him where my Rabbit Hutch was, and he said he would come by the next afternoon.
I dragged myself back to my office and called the shop in Chillicothe to cancel the appointment I had made to have them restore my car’s finish.
I’d just hung up the phone when Devon appeared in the doorway. He was transformed. His face was slack and he looked off balance. “Can I talk to you, Dr. Noonan?”
“Of course.” I said to Devon and pointed to the chair by my desk.
He closed the door, sat, and rested his gaze on the treetops below the window of my office. For a minute or so he said nothing. “I . . . um . . . you know about Kate?”
I nodded. “I am sorry, Devon. I know you were close with her.”
His face collapsed, and I thought he might cry, but he took a deep breath and steadied himself. “I’m sorry I wasn’t in class this morning.”
“That’s all right. Take care of yourself first. You can get notes from someone, and we can talk later in the week.”
He nodded and picked at the cuticle on his thumbnail. When he looked out the window again, there was a flash of anger in his eyes. The fire went out, and his look of sadness returned. “The sheriff talked to me on Saturday,” he said.
His eyes locked onto me like a cat stalking its prey. “Did you tell him I was Kate’s boyfriend?”
“I did. It wasn’t a secret.”
He looked away and relaxed a bit. “He wanted to know how we were getting along, and what time I saw her Friday night.”
He continued. “So, it’s okay for now, but I have a problem.”
“Devon, before you go any further, think about whether it’s a problem I can help you with. You can speak to a counselor here on campus. Anything you say to her is confidential. You’re not as protected when you talk to me.”
“But you knew Kate.”
“It might be better to talk to someone who can be objective.”
“I can trust you.”
That was true, but he had no way of knowing that. He just wanted it to be true.
He went on. “I had a problem when I was in high school.”
I glanced at the clock. I would give him five minutes, then call a counselor for him.
“I had a girlfriend, senior year. We drove out to a park. We were in my car, in the back seat, making out, and she said she wanted to stop. So, I did. We did. I said I would take her home.
“She got out on the passenger side, and I got out on the driver’s side. She tripped and fell and hit her head—the side of her face, really—on the side of the car. I ran right over and helped her up. She was crying, I think because when she fell she got her dress dirty. So, since she was crying, I went to put my arms around her, but she put her hand on my chest, so I stopped.
“Just then this guy comes jogging toward us and yells, ‘Is there a problem?’ He was an older guy, maybe in his thirties, and bigger than me. So, I held up my hands, and said, ‘No, no problem.’
“Then the guy walked right up to us, real close. So, I stepped over, half in front of Teresa, because I didn’t know what he was going to do. He said, ‘Step aside, mister!’ like we’re in the army or something. I said, ‘Hey, it’s okay. She’s my girlfriend. She’s just upset. She tripped and fell. I’m going to drive her home now.’
“Then the guy saw the scratches on her face, and he shoved me aside, and yelled, ‘Back off, mister! Back away!’ So, I took a couple of steps back and held up my hands. I said, ‘It’s okay. I just need to take her home.’ He asked Teresa, ‘Are you okay? Did he hit you? Did he push you?’ She was crying the whole time.
“Then the guy whipped out his cell phone and called the police. When they got there, one officer listened to him and me. The female officer took Teresa over to the police car and talked to her. They wouldn’t let us talk to each other. I’m pretty sure Teresa told them the truth, because at one point I heard her say, ‘No, nothing happened!’—loud, like she was sick of the whole business and just wanted to go home.
“Then the female officer drove away with her. I don’t know if they took her to the police station or just took her home. Another police car followed me home, and they came in and talked to my parents. When they left, my dad yelled at me. He kept saying, ‘So that’s your story? You’re sticking with that?’ I don’t think he believed me.
“After that, my parents, her parents—everybody—said I couldn’t ever talk to her again. Her dad is Tom Zannetti. He’s a big shot in Mansfield. Since then, we never have talked. She went to Ohio Northern and I came to school here.”
He stared at the floor, but he seemed to be gazing into the depths of hell. There are certain sculptures by Rodin that capture the kind of despair I saw on his face.
“Devon, I am sorry this happened to you when you were in high school. It sounds like you were treated unfairly. How can I help you?”
There were tears in his eyes. “If they find out I was accused of hurting Teresa, they’ll think I killed Kate. What should I do? No one would believe me last time, not even my own parents.”
“Is there a police record of the incident?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Were you arrested?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Were you handcuffed? Taken to a police station? Fingerprinted? Photographed? Put in a cell?”
“No. None of that.”
“Well, then you probably don’t have an arrest record. That’s good. I don’t know if police departments keep other kinds of records, but if they do there must be laws about sealing records of things that happened when you were a juvenile.”
“That makes me feel better. Still, if they find out. . . .”
“I don’t know what else to tell you, except you should have a lawyer with you if the police want to talk to you again. Talk to your parents so they can help you.”
He reacted as if he felt an electric shock. “Are you kidding? If my dad hears this, he’ll think I did it both times.”
That was the saddest thing I had heard all morning. I decided to try another angle. “Were you with Kate on Friday night?”
“I drove some of our friends into Blanton and we went to Marten’s. Kate showed up later, but she wasn’t really with me. We were all just hanging out together. She took off while we were still there.”
“Then what happened?”
“Nothing. We left around eleven or so. I drove the others back to campus, dropped them off, parked my car in the student lot, and walked back to my dorm.”
“So you don’t know where Kate went when she left Marten’s?”
“No. She would hardly talk to me. She was just blowing me off. I don’t know why.”
“Well, since your friends came back to campus with you, they can tell the police you were with them and not with Kate.”
He nodded and stared out the window for a moment. “I guess so. Thanks, Dr. Noonan. I just needed to talk to somebody—somebody who would believe me.”
“I’m happy to talk with you, Devon, but you still need someone on your side who can help you in case the police want to question you again. Maybe one of your friends could help you find a lawyer.”
“Yeah, maybe. Thanks. I’ll see you in class.”
He left, and I sat there wondering what to think and feeling alarmed. I hoped he wouldn’t be overconfident about his situation.
My cell phone rang. It was Abbie. “Hi, Nicole. I’m just going through my campus email. I was in Pittsburgh over the weekend. Have you seen this message from the dean, about a student being killed?”
“Yes, I have.”
“I guess it was bound to happen with students walking along the road to Blanton at night, but still it’s a shock.”
“Yes. I’m really going to miss her.”
I thought I heard a gasp before Abbie asked, “You knew her?”
“She was in my art history class.”
“Oh, my god! I’m so sorry. How are you holding up?”
“Honestly, it seems to get a little worse each day.”
“Do you want to have lunch?”
“I’ve got a one o’clock, and I need some time to get my head together for it.”
“After? Make a run into Blanton?”
“Maybe just meet back at the Hutches.”
“My place, three o’clock,” she said, and we rang off.
Abbie’s approach to furnishing her Rabbit Hutch was the opposite of mine. She had a pair of easy chairs upholstered in brocade and some oak tables. Perhaps they were from her family’s home, or she may have picked up some refurbished antiques. She made tea and we sat on a couple of cane-seat chairs at a pedestal table by her back window. The afternoon light was lovely on the trees beyond the lawn.
“A student walking back to campus at night is an accident waiting to happen,” said Abbie. “Maybe the college will do something now.”
“I don’t think the sheriff is treating it as an accident.”
“What do you mean?”
“Right before you called, a student was in my office, a guy named Devon Manus. Last Saturday, I mentioned him to Sheriff Adams because he and Kate had a disagreement Friday morning. Now the sheriff has questioned him about where he was Friday night, and Devon’s afraid he’ll be accused of killing Kate.”
“Do you mean killing her in an accident or deliberately, as in murdering her?”
“He’s afraid he’ll be accused of murder because he was falsely accused of assaulting his girlfriend in high school.”
Abbie sat back and thought about that for a moment. “What does the sheriff say about that?”
“He hasn’t told the sheriff.”
“So why did he tell you about it?”
“He wanted advice.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him to talk to a counselor, talk to his parents, and talk to a lawyer.”
“Is he going to?”
Abbie scowled. “So he just laid his guilty secret on you?”
“Who says he’s guilty?”
Abbie looked at me as if trying to read every shade of expression on my face. “Was there ever an abuser who didn’t say, ‘It was all a misunderstanding.’”
“You think he was lying to me?”
“I have no idea, but, if he does have a record of abuse, it would be to his advantage to spread the idea that he was falsely accused. That way, when the sheriff comes around asking questions, he’ll find lots of people like you saying, ‘Oh, that was all a mistake.’”
As usual, Abbie had a surprising interpretation of the facts. That was one of the things I enjoyed about talking with her, but in this instance I thought she had gone too far. “What you’re describing is very calculating,” I said. “It didn’t seem that way, talking with hm. When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, I dealt with abusive students a few times. Devon didn’t strike me as one of them. He seemed more scared than anything.”
She shrugged. “Trust your gut.”
“I think I’d rather use my head, and find out whether he’s telling the truth.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Because I know how it feels when someone attacks you without knowing anything about you.”
Abbie thought about that for a moment. “Like when your car got sprayed?”
Abbie thought about that for a moment. “The sheriff is investigating. Won’t he find out if this story about the high-school girlfriend is true?”
“I don’t know, but I’m tired of waiting around for other people to look into who’s doing what around here.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I guess the easiest thing would be to ask the girlfriend if he hurt her.”
“Do you think she would tell you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you even know who she is?”
“Devon said her name is Teresa Zannetti, and her dad is a big shot in Mansfield. Is that near here?”
Abbie shook her head. “It’s somewhere north of Columbus.”
“Still it shouldn’t be too hard to find her.”
“I guess not, but I can’t imagine her opening up to a stranger about this.”
“That will be the tricky part,” I said.
We talked about the pros and cons of approaching the girlfriend but without more information couldn’t come to a conclusion. Abbie gave me a hug and I left.
When I got back to my Hutch, I fired up my browser and searched for “Teresa Zannetti” on a few social media sites. I found her on BudStem, “The Buddy System.” There were three women with that name, and one was connected with Mansfield, Ohio. She was fairly generous with her personal information, allowing anyone to see her class schedule, photos, and list of buddies, but she did not give an email address or phone number. To communicate directly with her, I would have to become her buddy on BudStem. I thought about sending her a request but doubted she would accept a complete stranger with no interests in common.
Since I couldn’t think of a way to get in touch with her and convince her to talk to me, I decided to sleep on it.
I was glad for the President’s Convocation scheduled for mid-day on Tuesday. Anything to break the routine was welcome. Apparently, the college had one every year, early in the fall semester. It gave the president a chance to speak to the assembled faculty about the school’s situation and his plans for the year. It was his version of a State of the Union speech.
My chairman, Frank Rossi, had told me the art faculty usually met at the department’s office and walked together over to the auditorium in the Old Classroom Building. He thought this made the department more visible to our colleagues. There were only two other professors in the department: Irving Zorn, whose abstract expressionist canvases sold for obscene amounts of money and decorated many corporate lobbies; and Wilma Halberstadt, who taught art education, which is a fine and necessary thing, though she seemed to put more emphasis on the education than on the art.
The four of us were sitting together when our president, Roland Taylor, took the stage. I had met him when I interviewed last spring. He could easily be cast in a movie as a college president or a CEO, and in fact he had been both, having previously headed a small manufacturing company in Indiana.
He began by mentioning the death of Kate Conrad, assuring us that the chief of campus security was cooperating with the county sheriff, and promising a review of safety and security policies by the end of the semester. He said all this in a conversational way before opening the folder he had with him and beginning his prepared remarks.
Since this was my first convocation, I didn’t know if he always took a historical perspective, but he did that day. First he paid tribute to the independence of Felix Fuchs and the original members of the Eden Commune. Next he praised the vision of Hilda Kiefaber, who became the first headmistress of the Eden Independent School, which was established by the shareholders of the commune after the residential community was dissolved in the 1880s. Then he told how the school’s governing board raised funds for buildings so that the school could become Fuchs College in 1920.
I was familiar with most of this from reading Jacob’s book, but I enjoyed hearing it as part of the convocation; a community that recalls its past when assessing its present situation is a healthy community.
His voice rose as he said, “Today I have the privilege of announcing that this institution is on the threshold of a third major transformation.” He went on to say the college had begun negotiations with a donor interested in establishing a school of business and would soon launch a major fundraising campaign. Along with paying for a new building, the funds would be used to upgrade the library, improve the campus’ computer network, hire additional faculty and so on. At the same time, he said, the college would begin to orient itself toward preparing students for careers while not in any way diminishing its traditional strength in liberal arts and sciences.
I was stunned. I had barely begun to understand who was who and what was what at Fuchs College, and it was changing.
More than a hundred professors sat in silence as the president took a sip of water and shuffled his papers. When he spoke again, he did so in an intimate tone, as if he were speaking privately to each of us. “With the addition of a second school—a school of business alongside the school of liberal arts and sciences—we become a university. Members of our Board of Trustees have already spoken with officials in state government to clear the way for legally changing our designation from college to university when the new school of business opens its doors.
“Here we face an additional challenge, one less demanding than building a new school, yet no less vital to the identity of this institution. When we become a university, and are called a university, we know that the word ‘university’ will often be shortened to a single letter, U, in conversation, on t-shirts, and on other memorabilia. When we consider the tendency of English speakers to favor the shortened vowel sound over the long vowel sound—with which ‘Fuchs’ is properly pronounced—the problem becomes apparent. The name of our revered founder will not pair well with the abbreviation for university.”
I had to hand it to President Taylor. Without saying it, he had made clear that no one would take seriously a school whose name sounded like an insult.
He continued. “Therefore, I call upon this faculty, which is the heart and mind of this great institution, to begin deliberations on a new name, a worthy successor to ‘The Eden Independent School’ and ‘Fuchs College.’ I ask you, what shall we call this new university?”
With that he thanked us for our attention and departed the stage. Applause was lackluster. As my colleagues stood and walked up the aisles of the auditorium in pairs and threes, conversation was muted.
I followed Frank and the members of my department out onto the pavement in front of the building. There we hesitated, glanced at one another, and turned to our chairman, hoping for an explanation. “News to me,” said Frank with a shrug. “Good news though. More people on campus. Critical mass. Vitality. Department meeting next Tuesday. I’ll email you.”
The members of my department went their separate ways, and I looked around at the dispersing faculty to see if Abbie or Lionel was available to talk. Instead I saw Jacob standing with four colleagues, all men about his age. I was not close enough to hear everything they were saying, but, from what I heard, they were arguing about the president’s call to change the name of the school. When Jacob started to walk away, one of the others put a hand on his shoulder, and Jacob pivoted and backhanded the man. I couldn’t tell if Jacob struck him in the face or merely batted his arm away, but the man seemed stunned, as were the others. “Never,” roared Jacob. He charged across the pavement, and everyone made way for him.
I had spent ten years on university campuses, more than a third of my life, and I had never seen a physical altercation involving professors or graduate students. I had seen undergraduates fight, but only after a lot of drinking, and even then it was mostly shouting. That’s why Jacob’s single, angry gesture left most of us frozen in place.
As the others began murmuring to those near them, I felt conspicuous standing by myself. I hurried off to the Student Center, where I grabbed a sandwich and sat looking over the campus green while I ate.
The convocation and its aftermath left me feeling nervous. If other faculty felt the way Jacob did, changing the school’s name would be an explosive topic. Also, despite Taylor’s assurances that liberal arts would remain strong, a new emphasis on preparing students for careers did not sound good for me. If the school became financially strapped, as schools always did, majors that did not lead to jobs would be in jeopardy. If they started cutting programs to save money, they wouldn’t even have an art history department to shut down. They could just turn me down for tenure in four years. All the more reason to keep looking for that next job.
As I walked to my office, I had an idea for getting in touch with Teresa Zannetti. It was possible someone she knew from high school in Mansfield had come to Fuchs College and enrolled in one of my classes—someone other than Devon, that is.
When I got to my office, I looked at the rosters for my three courses. There were thirty-five students in one section of art appreciation, thirty-three in the other, and ten in art history, for a total of seventy-eight. It took me a while to type each of those names into the search box on BudStem. By the time I was done, I had found two students from Mansfield, both from my afternoon section of art appreciation. I remembered seeing them in class, but hadn’t spoken to them individually.
I sent a request to each of them, hoping they might like to be buddies with one of their professors. If they did, I would send a request to Teresa, and, if she knew either or both of them, she might agree to be my buddy. That was a lot of ifs, but it was the best chance I had.
Professor Jacob Schumacher lived in one of the Victorians on College Avenue, across and down a ways from the chapel. These were not grand pieces of architecture, but rather homes for a professional class of people in a style typical of the early 1900s. His two-story house had a square tower on one corner. The wide front porch and generous proportions promised comfort well beyond basic shelter. In other words, this house had nothing in common with the Rabbit Hutches.
He answered the door wearing a brown suede vest over a black shirt, black slacks, and black shoes with pointy toes.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Noonan,” he said.
“Please, call me Nicole.”
“And you must call me Jacob.”
He gestured toward the living room. “Please have a seat.”
This was not in the same universe with the Rabbit Hutches: built-in bookcases along one wall, a bay window at the far end of the room with two wing chairs, armchairs and a loveseat clustered in front of a hearth, all under a high ceiling, and lit by casement windows with leaded glass. Part of my brain understood that he had been on the faculty here for probably thirty years, while I had been here about thirty days, but another part of my brain said, “Kill this man and take his house.”
I sat on the loveseat and admired a collection of porcelain in a tall display case by the fireplace. There were two dinner plates and a few smaller plates, all painted with decorative borders and pastoral scenes. There were also teacups and saucers and a few figurines.
He smiled as he sat back and clasped his hands over his belly. “Do you like my collection of Meissen?”
“It’s lovely,” I said, “although I can’t say I know much about it.”
“Meissen is significant,” he said. “In the early eighteenth century, they were the first Europeans to discover how to make white porcelain. Up to then it had to be imported from China.”
“Very nice,” I said.
Changing his, tone he said, “I want to offer my condolences on the death of your student. It must have been a terrible shock for you.”
At that moment, I felt the shock as much as I had Saturday morning. “Yes, it was. Thank you.”
“I know only what the dean put in his email on Saturday, and I’m afraid I’m not very good about following news reports. Is anything further known about how she died?”
“I’m not aware of anything,” I said.
I decided to change the subject, because any further talk of this would bring me to tears. “I appreciate your offer to help with my research.”
“I hope I can help. As I recall, you want to look in the archives for references to the mural?”
“Yes. In my dreams, I would find the artist’s sketchbook so I could see how he or she collected images and developed themes. But, really, any mention of the artist or the mural would help.”
“Of course. Let me give you a quick tour.”
He picked up a laptop computer from the coffee table, navigated to a page, and handed it to me. On the screen I saw a page from the library catalogue. “All the items in the archive relevant to the years of the Eden Commune, 1851 to 1883, are listed as collections named for the families who donated them to the library,” he said. “As you can see, there are quite a few. A single collection might give you a large number of documents. There’s one, for instance, at the top of that page, a collection of letters written by a member of the commune between 1863 and 1869.”
I clicked on the title of the item and saw that the file contained 104 letters, most on sheets measuring four and a half inches by seven inches. “I suppose it would take a few days to read them all,” I said.
Jacob nodded. “That’s right, and reading them would be the only way to know if the letters mention the mural, because only a few of these collections have been indexed. I’ve already checked those that are, and I didn’t find a reference to the mural or to painting or artwork.”
“So I would have to read through more than a hundred collections, each one containing perhaps hundreds pages?”
“Some more, some less.” He took the computer from me, clicked on another entry, and handed it back. “This one, for instance, contains only a diary from 1877. It’s a pocket-sized book, two inches by three inches, with forty pages.”
“Still, there must be thousands of pages,” I said. “Why don’t we have the National Endowment for the Humanities give us an enormous grant to hire an army of scholars to index all these pages. If we hire enough of them, they could be done by Christmas.”
Jacob chuckled. “If we could predict that somewhere in these documents is a cure for cancer or a formula for renewable fuels, I’m sure we could get the funding. A lost sonnet by Shakespeare might even do it.”
His laugh brought on a fit of coughing. He turned away from me and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to cover his mouth.
When he turned back, I noticed a spot of blood on his lower lip. “You have something on your lip,” I said, touching my own lip in the same place.
Startled, he turned away again and wiped his lip repeatedly, checking his handkerchief each time. Apparently he wanted to make sure no more blood showed.
I made a few notes about the items Jacob had shown me. “Thanks for the introduction. Perhaps I’ll spend some time reading through the catalogue entries to see if anything stands out for me.”
Jacob nodded. “That’s a good idea. And let me know if you have any trouble with the German. Some of the vocabulary is peculiar.”
My mouth was dry and my heart was speeding up. “The German?”
“Yes,” said Jacob. “Most of the documents from the commune are in German. For instance, that collection of letters was addressed to relatives back in Germany. In general, members of the commune had little need for English. When they did business with English-speaking farmers from the area, rough translations sufficed.”
When I was twelve, my family went to Lake Tahoe to stay with another family at a cabin. I had taken swimming lessons at Rossi Pool for several years, so I didn’t hesitate to jump off a pier. By doing so, I learned that the water of a deep, mountain lake is frigid compared to the water of a pool in a neighborhood recreation center. Learning that the documents I wanted to read were written in German was a similar experience.
“Well, Jacob, I must confess, I do not read German.”
“If something looks promising, perhaps I can help.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“I could at least glance at it or I might have an advanced student who would like to translate it for an independent study credit.”
“That’s very generous.”
He shrugged. “It would also contribute to making the documents more accessible to others. Oh, there’s one other thing to look for. Some of the documents are written in Gabelsberger.”
“Gabelsberger? What is that?”
“It’s a system of shorthand writing that was invented in Germany in 1834. Some of the more literate members of the commune learned it before they came here. Paper was relatively expensive back then, so shorthand was used to avoid filling pages with longhand writing. It was also useful for recording a lecture or sermon.”
“So I would have to get someone to translate the shorthand into German before I could have the German translated into English?”
“Yes. Gabelsberger hasn’t been used since the 1920s, but I know of two scholars in Germany who can read it, although one of them is fairly old now.”
I did my best to smile. “Jacob, I can’t thank you enough.”
“I hope I haven’t discouraged you.”
“Well, I had hoped for better news, but thank you for filling me in.”
“You’re welcome, and let me know how it goes.”
As I left the building and walked back to my Rabbit Hutch, my feet felt heavy. My imaginary road that lead from Fuchs College to academic stardom was now blocked by an avalanche of German written in shorthand.
Maybe I could find an alternate route. When we met in the chapel, Jacob had mentioned that a building from the Oneida Commune still existed. I could find out if there was a mural there. I might also look outside the world of communes and see how many buildings survived in Ohio from the mid-1800s. One of them might have a mural. If its style matched the mural in the chapel, they might have been done by the same artist, who might be identifiable. I was speculating wildly, but often that kind of thinking can show you where to look.
When I came to the intersection of College Avenue and Ohio Avenue, the chapel was only a short walk away. I thought a few minutes with the mural might rekindle my enthusiasm for studying it.
The afternoon light from the west-facing windows was spotty, and it shone unevenly on the mural, but there was enough to see the panorama of community life. I saw again the long noses of the farmer, the preacher, and the man in the orchard, which lead Jacob to suspect the muralist had depicted Felix Fuchs. It was a pleasure to revisit these images and themes, and to let my eyes skip around the mural, taking in more details.
I found it odd that in the preaching scene the preacher and congregation were shown with the exterior of the church in the background. Why wouldn’t the muralist have shown them inside the church? Also between the preaching scene and the choir-singing scene was one in which men were completing the skeletal framework of a building. Why would that have been placed alongside scenes of worship? I pulled a notebook out of my bag and made a quick schematic drawing of this part of the mural. I also made a note to remind me to ask Jacob if he could meet me in the chapel on Thursday afternoon to take a look at these vignettes.
As I sketched and wrote, I felt calm. My brain seemed to unlock, and my thoughts flowed freely once more. I promised myself I would drop in here for an hour at least every other day, and collect my impressions. I got excited about moving forward with an article on the mural. Routine chores like grading quizzes, preparing classes, buying groceries, and even doing laundry began to seem possible once more.
I learned to do this when I was a girl. When Mom took me to the de Young Museum, about ten blocks from our house, I didn’t want to leave. I started crying when she said it was time to go home. When we got home I used my crayons to make copies from memory of paintings I had seen at the museum so I wouldn’t forget them. When I was older, I took art lessons and started studying art, but the real lesson from my childhood was that copying and thinking about a picture could make me feel better.
I went back to my office, revised my to-do lists, and checked the email in my Fuchs.edu account, which I hadn’t opened in a few days. As I worked my way through the long list of messages, my fingers froze on the keyboard and I held my breath when I saw “Kate Conrad” in the sender column. I’m not superstitious, but for a moment I hesitated to click on the subject line, “My Research on the Mural,” as if opening the message might unleash her ghost. I shook off the feeling and clicked.
Hi Dr. Noonan,
Just wanted to let you know I have a pretty good idea what I want to write my paper on. I got some good notes and sketches in the chapel yesterday afternoon. In the library today, I found some art history books that gave me some good ideas about what one of the coffins in the mural might mean. The bibliography in the back of the textbook was a big help and I found things online. Have a good weekend. I’ll see you in class on Monday.
I cried. All the fun of teaching Kate about art history, all her quick insight, all the writing she might have done, and the career she might have had, now were like a great cargo ship disappearing over the horizon. I had lost family members—an uncle and a cousin—and not felt this bereaved.
When I dried my eyes, I re-read the email and stopped at the word “coffins.” I hadn’t noticed any coffins in the mural. I made a note to look for them Thursday afternoon, when I would again have time to spend in the chapel. If I could find out what she was researching, maybe I could mention her work in a footnote when eventually I published something.
I slogged back to my Rabbit Hutch, ready to heal up from the shocks the afternoon had delivered by listening to some music, doing some exercises, and preparing a meal. Twenty yards from my front door, I stopped and looked. Something was different. My car. The hood was clear. No spray paint!
I hurried over and took a close look at it. No black paint remained. Running my hand over the surface, I felt no uneven spots. Byron Hawley had made good on his offer.
I choked up and felt tears in my eyes. Maybe a good deed could make up for a bad deed. Maybe I hadn’t been a fool to move far from home to take his job. Maybe I’d call home this evening and let Mom and Dad know how this one turned out.
Wednesday morning class was uninspired. I took the conventional route, covering the material. The students seemed satisfied with conventional. Ursula Wilmot was in seventh heaven.
Around lunchtime, Sheriff Adams called and asked to meet with me again. I told him I could see him after my afternoon class.
Sheriff Mason Adams arrived at me office at three o’clock. He really was as tall as I remembered. cHe wasted no time coming to the point. “Were you aware that Devon Manus has a history of abusing women?”
I took a moment to think about my answer, which must have made me look guilty. “I was not aware of it when we spoke on Saturday.”
Now it was his turn to pause and think. “But you have since become aware of it?”
“Devon came to see me on Monday. He was upset over Kate’s death, so I referred him to the counseling services on campus. He blurted out this story about how he was accused of abusing his girlfriend in high school.”
Adams leaned toward me as he asked, “Why didn’t you call me and tell me about this?”
I remained sitting straight up in my chair. “I didn’t know whether he was telling the truth about it.”
Adams kept the pressure on. “You do understand, Doctor, it is my job to determine whether people involved in a criminal case are telling the truth.”
“I didn’t know Devon was involved in a criminal case.”
“I had just asked you ab