Dr. Sally Good sat at her desk, staring at a stack of ungraded freshman essays that lay amid the clutter, and regretting what she was afraid might turn out to be a terrible mistake. She had violated one of her major rules for department chairs: Never date the staff.
Not that she'd actually dated one of the staff yet. But what she'd done was almost as bad. She'd said she'd go out with Jack Neville.
Her feeling of regret was no reflection on Jack. He was a nice-enough guy in his shy, self-effacing way, but ever since becoming head of the English department at Hughes Community College, Sally had deliberately avoided any kind of emotional involvement with the members of the college community.
It wasn't that she hadn't been attracted to some of them. In fact, she had to admit to a slight flutter every now and again when she encountered Jorge "Rooster" Rodriguez. The fact that Jorge was a convicted killer had nothing to do with the flutter, or so she told herself. It was less easy to tell herself that his powerful physique, which she ardently hoped was the result of pumping iron rather than steroid ingestion, had nothing to do with the way he made her feel.
She knew it wasn't the tattoos, which she'd seen in the summer when Jorge wore short-sleeved shirts. His bulging arms were covered with them, and they weren't particularly imaginative. Typicaljailhouse fare, Sally told herself: snakes and spiders and skulls and weeping eyes. The rooster was supposedly concealed underneath Jorge's shirts, and Sally hadn't seen it.
For some reason, contemplating Jorge's tattoos caused Sally to breathe a little faster. To take her mind off them, she opened the bottom drawer of her desk and looked for a Hershey bar. Thank God there was one in there. She was reaching for it when someone came into the office.
She sat up, regretting (and not for the first time) her open-door policy. She closed the drawer quickly without grabbing the Hershey bar and turned guiltily toward the door. Anna Trojan was standing there, looking uncertainly at her department chair.
There was nothing unusual in that. Anna Trojan was small and mousey, with gray hair and sallow skin. She always wore gray clothes that were nearly the same shade as her hair, and she looked uncertainly at everyone: students, faculty, and administration. Sally thought that Anna probably looked uncertainly at her own reflection in the mirror.
Anna was the oldest member of the department, though Sally didn't know exactly how old that was. She'd never bothered to look at the personnel records and find out. It had never seemed important.
"What can I do for you, Anna?" Sally said, trying to look like a professional educator instead of someone who'd just been diving for a Hershey bar.
"I think the students are making fun of me," Anna said.
Uncertainly, of course.
Sally straightened in her chair. "I'm sure you're mistaken," she said.
"Well, I could be, of course. Maybe they weren't, after all." Anna turned to go. "I'm sorry I bothered you."
"Wait," Sally said. She hadn't meant to brush Anna off. "Come in and have a seat. Let's talk about this."
Anna turned back to the office. "Well, if you're sure it's no bother."
"No bother at all," Sally said.
She got up and moved a stack of papers from the chair beside her desk. According to Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, the great man had always had trouble keeping things in their proper places. In his vain but commendable attempt to achieve moral perfection, orderliness had given him considerable trouble. Sally took as much comfort as she could from that fact.
"Have a seat," Sally said, putting the papers on an old typing table that was already covered with other papers, a few desk copies of textbooks, and a box of pencils, not to mention an electric typewriter that hadn't been out from under its cover since Sally had moved into the office. She wasn't even sure it still worked, not that it mattered.
Anna sat in the chair and crossed her hands in her lap as she waited for Sally to sit back down.
"Now then," Sally said when she had returned to her place, "what seems to be the trouble?"
"I think the students are making fun of me," Anna repeated. "But I'm probably wrong."
"Maybe," Sally said. "But why do you think so?"
"Well," Anna said, as uncertainly as ever, "this morning there were several students making noise in the hallway while I was teaching my eight o'clock class. They were right outside my door, and I thought at first they'd go away. But they didn't. After a few minutes, I stepped outside and asked them to be quiet."
"And they weren't?" Sally said.
"Oh, no, they got quiet. But just as I was closing my door, I thought I heard one of them say, 'Who was that old lady?'"
"I see," Sally said, though she really didn't. If the worst thing students these days called you was an old lady, you could consider yourself lucky.
"And that's not all," Anna said.
"They called you something else?"
"No. Not them. It was my students. The ones in my class."
"The ones who are making fun of you?"
"They might not be making fun of me. You said so yourself. I could have been mistaken."
Sally repressed a sigh. "Tell me what they said."
"It wasn't what they said so much," Anna told her. "It was the way they said it."
"And how was that?"
"It's my name," Anna said. "They were saying it funny."
"They were calling you 'Anna'?"
"No, they were calling me Ms. Trojan. But there was something about the way they were saying it."
Sally could hardly believe Anna's puzzlement, though it seemed genuine enough. How anyone with the name of Trojan could go through life without having been made aware of its association with a popular brand of condoms was a mystery.
Or maybe I'm just more sophisticated than I give myself credit for, Sally thought.
She was trying to think of a good way to explain things to Anna when Troy Beauchamp, the school gossip, came down the hall and turned straight into the office.
Troy was a sloppy dresser, and today he looked particularly harried. His shirttail bagged out over the top of his pants, and his tie was askew. He came to an abrupt stop when he saw Anna.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't know anyone was in here."
"I'll be with you in a few minutes, Troy," Sally said. "Would you mind waiting in the hall? And close the door, please."
"I, uh, this is really important news," Troy said.
Everything Troy found out was important, at least to him. He loved being the first to know everything, and he always regarded his latest tidbit as at least as important as the most recent news from Washington, Russia, or the Vatican. He reminded Sally of Emmeline Grangerford, one of the minor characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Whenever someone died, Emmeline was the first person to arrive at the house after the doctor. Except once. That time the undertaker got there ahead of her, and after that she just pined away. Sally was sure that if anyone ever got to a piece ofgossip before Troy, the same thing would happen to him.
"I'm sure your news can wait," Sally told Troy.
"No," Troy said. "It can't. Ralph Bostic has been murdered!"
"What?" Anna said, aghast. She was aghast almost as frequently as she was uncertain. "Isn't he one of the college's trustees?"
"That's right," Troy said, looking at her as if he might be wondering just how many people named Ralph Bostic she could possibly know. "And you'll never guess who killed him."
"President Fieldstone?" Sally said.
"Good guess," Troy said approvingly. President Fieldstone's relationship with the board of trustees had been somewhat rocky of late. "But wrong. It's a lot worse than that."
"It couldn't possibly be worse than that," Sally said.
Troy looked somber. "Oh, yes, it could," he said.
Sally didn't know how, but she was sure of one thing: Troy was going to be the first to tell her.
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Crider.