Feb 7, 2020

Posted in EXCERT OF MYSTERY THRILLER

STALKING LIONS excerpt

               

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER ONE

 ‘Lions at the Door’ 

 

                         I had just gotten back on campus, ready to start the new semester, when there came a knock at my door. As I had the radio turned up and was busy transferring the contents of my suitcase and duffle bag into a closet chest-of-drawers, it didn’t quite register at first. By the second knock it did.

                         “Hi. You must be Parker Robinson?”

                         “Yep, that’s me.” I said.

                         “I’m Larry Magnolia. I’m on this floor, too.”

                         “Great. Nice to meet you.”

                         I leaned forward, indicating a willingness to shake hands but he didn’t take me up on it.                 

                         Instead, I said, “Why don’t you come on in. I’m just unpacking.”

                         He strolled to the center of the room, a journey requiring at most three steps, it being a small, campus-side single on the 5th floor that was mine for the year.

                         “You just got in, right?”

                         “I did. About ten minutes ago.”

                         He stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the stuff I had brought with me.

                         He was dressed like he might be on his way to go running. He wore track shoes, calf-length socks, cargo pants ––some of the side pockets bulging–– and a dingy white t-shirt that looked like it had been laundered by being pounded against rocks at the river’s edge.

                         He looked more wiry than muscular. The skin on his neck and arms was red from sunburn. His hair was tending towards chestnut, his freckles were tan over pink. He had pale green eyes; transparent, blond eyelashes, and the capper ––a bushy, orange mustache that could have served as a prosthetic for a red squirrel’s tail.

                         Maybe it was the mustache, but he looked too old to be an undergrad, more like a prospector out of the Old West. You could almost imagine a mule trailing behind him.

                         “Do you want to turn that music down?” he said. He didn’t say it like a request, but I did as he asked.

                         Still looking around, he said, “I’m going to be your floor counselor this year.”

                         “Oh? . . . Oh, that’s great.”

                         “I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself.”

                         “Thanks.”

                         Still without glancing in my direction, he continued looking around, “Yes, I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself, and let you know I’m available.”

                         “Great. Thank you.”

                         “And that my door is always open to you, any time, day or night.”

                         “Great. Thanks. I appreciate that.”

                         “So, if you find yourself, at any time this year, having emotional problems. If you’re feeling suicidal or depressed ––anything like that–– I just want you to know that you can always come to me . . .”

                         I hesitated to express any more appreciation because the way he was putting it suddenly didn’t sound all that sincere.

                         Finally, he looked directly at me,

                         “. . . And I’ll be sure to do my best to talk you into it.”

                         “Into what?”

                         “Into killing yourself.”

                         “Oh really?”

                         “Let me ask you something: ever hear of a guy named Mark Cross? Yeah, I thought you might. He was your floor counselor last year, wasn’t he?”

                         “Was he?”

                         “You know he was. And he was fired because of you.”

                         “Are you sure it wasn’t because of his own negligence?”

                         “No. It wasn’t his negligence; it was yours. It was because of that little stunt you pulled: sneaking off and playing hooky in Hawaii for a semester.”

                         “It was half a semester.”

                         “And yet, here you are, back at Columbia. Not expelled. You should have been! And yet, where is Mark Cross? He’s not here, is he?”

                         “I don’t know. Is he?”

                         “No, he’s not.”

                         He waited for me to say something more, but I elected to keep silent.

                         He continued, “You must have felt so smug, so superior, playing in the Hawaiian surf while the rest of us suckers were back here working our butts off for our educations.”

                          “I may have been surfing, but I still kept up with my course work.”

                         “That’s not the point! The point is Mark Cross got fired for something you did, something that was your fault.”

                         “Is it the baby’s fault if the babysitter never checks on him?”

                         “Any student who cuts classes for a semester . . .”

                         “Half.”

                         “. . . Ought to have been expelled.”

                         “They revoked my scholarship. I’m on probation for the whole year. Isn’t that enough?”

                         “No, it’s not near enough!” he said. “But I’m going to see that you pay the price. I plan to be a very conscientious ‘babysitter’. I know exactly what the rules are and I’m going to be watching you like a hawk, Robinson . . . your every move. And I am going to dedicate myself to making sure you never, ever graduate from this college. You hear what I’m saying?”

                         I was getting fed up with all this. “Gosh, Larry, thanks. What are friends for?”

                         He took another step closer, tilting his head back and jutting forth his lower jaw. It gave me a closer view of his dilated nostrils, now resembling the business end of a double-barreled derringer, poking over the back of the squirrel’s tail. He had bared his teeth, too, but, with the mustache, I could only see the bottom row. Put wire rim glasses on him and he would look like a florid, wiry, angry Teddy Roosevelt.

                         “Don’t you ever –ever!– refer to me as your friend.”

                         “Thanks for dropping by, Larry. I’m kind of busy right now.”

                         “All right, I’m going, but just you remember what I said: if you’re ever feeling like ending it all, you be sure and come to see me.”

                         “Thanks, Larry, I’ll remember that.”

                         He affected to stroll out of the room the same way he had strolled in.

                         When he got to the door, I said, “By the way, if I do commit suicide, who do you suppose will get the blame for that?”

                         He turned around and marched back to his original spot, once again with his chin trying to win the race. His bulging neck tendons tugged the sides of his mouth down, as though he were straining to complete a chin-up.

                          “If that happens and I get fired, it’ll be worth it. Believe me, it’ll be well worth it.”

                         I answered with stony silence. After a few more seconds of him boring his eyes into me, he once again turned and went out, slamming the door behind him.

                         I stood for a minute, thinking about the bizarre exchange that had just taken place. I said out loud to the empty room, “How about that, only ten minutes back and already I’ve made a new friend.”

                         I tried putting the unpleasantness out of my mind. There was no way I was ever going to be able to appease him. I would just have to live with it or ––I supposed, if he became too insufferable–– try to transfer to another dorm.

                         Much later, I was able to reflect on this exchange and think that it was too bad I wasn’t born clairvoyant, or I could have fully appreciated the compound ironies involved here:

                         #1––having a floor counselor who hated my guts and wished me dead.

                         #2 ––that he almost got his wish.

 

 

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER TWO

‘The Message’

 

                                    The campus continued filling up; more students arriving, cars pulling up in front of the 116th Street gate on Broadway, emptying the contents of their trunks into carts, which were then noisily trundled over cobblestones and finally wheeled up ramps and into the dorms.

                                    By nightfall, campus parties were cranking up everywhere. Music filled South Field, some from live bands playing in the front halls, others from individual students setting their speakers on their windowsills and blasting their playlists out into the night air.

                                    As the hour grew later, the music and the general caterwauling gradually wound down and then ceased. The campus became silent again ––at least as silent as it ever gets, given its urban setting. Ever present was the hollow, white-noise background of the great metropolis, sounding like a seashell held to one’s ear.

                                   While the parties had been going on, I made the rounds, looking up friends and saying hello to acquaintances. However, I was careful to be back in my dorm before midnight. According to the rules laid down by the Disciplinary Committee, I was required to be back on my floor by that hour, each and every night.

                                    However, as I stepped off the elevator, I noticed that at the far end of the hall, a party was still underway in the 5th floor lounge. I decided to wander down and check it out.

                                    The party had clearly been going on for some time. It had reached that mellow stage where the music has been turned low, and partygoers were conversing in hushed tones.

                                    Not only was the music and conversation held low, but the people were low down, too. No one in the room, with the exception of myself, was actually standing. Bodies were draped everywhere on the furniture ––like sea lions lounging on rocks–– and also sprinkled about in pairs and groupings on the floor. Not an orgy by any means; more like the latter stages of a slumber party.

                                    Looking about, I noted that Larry Magnolia was nowhere in attendance. Therefore, I elected to hang out for a while and get to know some of my new floormates.

                                    The group made me welcome. In no time at all, I was flat on my back on the floor with my head resting on an obliging female stranger’s lap ­––she was stroking my forehead–– while another one ––I am not making this up–– was holding hands with me while she fed me green grapes and cubes of Swiss cheese off a paper plate. A common feature to nearly all floor parties those first few days back is that they all tended to embody fast-track socializing.

                                    As the assorted eddies of conversation flowed on, the overall volume kept inching up ––especially whenever laughter erupted–– and even though whispered voices sprang up every now and then, urging us all to keep our voices down, inevitably the noise-level continued to climb, with each person’s voice competing with others to be heard above the rest.

                                    All at once, Larry Magnolia materialized in the doorway, showing up virtually the same way he had at my door, when he had stopped by to give me his Reverse Welcome Wagon. His chin was taking the lead again. He marched over to the sound system and jabbed angrily at the off switch.

                                    “Party’s over. Lounge is closed. I warned you this would happen if you couldn’t keep your voices down.”

                                    Another student dared to challenge him, “But lounges are supposed to remain open all night?”

                                    “And people on this floor have a right to get their sleep!” he said, ignoring the detrimental effect his raised voice was having on that objective.

                                    There were some soft boos from the gallery.

                                    Magnolia answered, “Tough luck. That’s just the way it is.”

                                    At this moment, he happened to notice me lying there and his ire was kindled even higher. “Robinson! Just what do you think you’re doing? You’re violating your probation!”

                                    “Actually, Larry, I don’t believe I am.”

                                    Once again, ignoring his own injunction, he shouted at me, “Yes, you are! Your curfew says you have to be in your room by midnight!”

                                    “Actually, I believe it says I have to be ‘physically back on my floor by midnight’. And, as you can see . . .”

                                    If he had been wearing hobnailed boots, I’m sure he would have begun stomping on me right then and there. But as he was wearing thick athletic socks with moccasin soles, he modified his attack from a stomp into a flying kick that struck my upper calf. No harm done except it forced me to uncross my legs and didn’t allow Larry to fully vent his fury.

                                    “Get to your room now, Robins-ass, before I kick you down there myself. And don’t ever . . . ever! try splitting hairs with me again!”

                                    Without question, I had been foolhardy in deliberately taking him on. But I was still sore at his earlier treatment. And, truth be told, I was also obviously playing up to my audience, especially my volunteer harem, who were nodding their support and looked like they might be susceptible to that old saw that says women are naturally attracted to ‘bad boys’. Who could be more a more alluring ‘bad boy’ than one who, on his first day back, was already on probation.

                                    The party broke up. I returned to my room and to what I thought was the end of my first night back on campus. Not quite, however.

                                    Utilizing the sink in the room, I washed my face and brushed my teeth and then climbed into bed where I fell asleep almost immediately. I continued sleeping soundly for another hour or two, when I was suddenly startled awake by an unfamiliar sound. Then I heard it again. It was a soft tapping at my door.

                                   I got up to answer it, but before opening the door, I quickly donned a pair of cutoff jeans. My normal habit is to sleep in the buff. When I had packed for the semester, there had been no room for anything as bulky as a bathrobe, so, instead, I elected to use these shorts for making nocturnal trips to the bathroom.

                                    My visitor was barefoot. She, however, must have had room in her suitcase, because she was wearing a white, and tightly cinched, Turkish-style bathrobe. Her hair was wrapped up in a turban and she was carrying a shower kit in one hand and her room key in the other.

                                    We had met briefly, earlier, in front of our mailboxes down in the lobby. Her first name was either Rosalyn or Joslyn –I wasn’t sure which– and her last name was something unpronounceable but sounded possibly Russian or Middle European.

                                    As soon as she spoke, I knew that English had to be her second language. Although I was certain she could speak it far better than I could speak any foreign language myself, nevertheless, her accent was so thick that, unavoidably, it came out sounding comical.

                                    She pouted and held up her key, “I am sorry to vake you, but I cannot make my stupid key v’rk. Can you help me, pliss?”

                                    She motioned me with her finger to accompany her. I did so without question, the Rules of Chivalry requiring that I accept her statement at face value. I did, however, silently ponder as we passed by Larry Magnolia’s door, why she hadn’t bothered knocking on his door instead, especially considering that her room was at the dead opposite end of the floor from mine.

                                    Upon arrival, she handed me her key to try. I inserted it in the keyhole. The cylinder turned easily without the slightest resistance.

                             “Oh, thang you so mudge,” she said. She touched my arm as though the trick

                             was all in my bicep.

                                   “I vant to give you a message.”

                                    “Sure. What is it?”

                                   She looked surprised, “Doun you know?”

                                   I yawned. I was super groggy. “Not until you tell me?” I said.

                                    “Doun you know vhat a message is?”

                                   “No.”

                                    “A back message?”

                                    “Oh, massage! No, sorry. No, thank you. Not tonight. I’m pretty beat.”

                                   “It vill help you veelax.”

                                    “Thanks, but I’m pretty relaxed already. Some other time.”

                                   I handed her back her key. She snatched it from me and entered her room, closing the door behind her a tad louder than other sleepers on the floor would have appreciated.

                                   I swung by the bathroom and then returned to my door where I now discovered I had Rosalyn/Joslyn’s problem, only worse. I had locked myself out without my room key.

                                    My room key was in my other pair of pants. Normally, the final thing I do before retiring is transfer the key from one pocket to the other, but I had neglected to do so.

                                    Students getting locked out of their rooms is a commonplace occurrence, especially those first few days back. However, my predicament was compounded by the fact that the person who had the passkey was Larry Magnolia, and no way was I going to wake him up and ask him for assistance.

                                   Instead, I descended to the Dorm Counselor’s room down on the first floor. However, the note on her door said she was away and that all problems should be referred to Larry Magnolia on the fifth.

                              I asked the Security Guard on duty at the front door, but he said he didn’t have a master key. I would have to wake my floor counselor. I didn’t feel like explaining, so I fibbed and said he wasn’t in. He said the only other thing I could do was go across campus to the Security Office.

                                    “Show them your ID; they’ll lend you a spare one.”

                                    “Unfortunately, my ID is also locked in my room,” I said.

                                    He chuckled, “Well, dressed the way you are, they’ll probably believe you. I’ll call over and let them know you’re coming.”

                                    “They don’t do delivery?”

                                    “I don’t think so. Not at this hour. Shall I call and tell them you’re on your way?”

                                    Before saying yes, I paused to consider my options: I knew I could go back up and spend the rest of the night in the fifth-floor lounge, without blanket, pillow or pajamas, or I could go back and knock on Rosalyn/Joslyn’s door, but in either case, I would still have to make the trip to the Security Office in the morning. With classes starting tomorrow, I decided I had better take the chilly route now and get it over with.

                                    The guard began phoning while I slipped out through the vestibule.  

 

 

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER THREE

 ‘An Object Badly Out of Place’

 

                         Outside, the nip in the air was almost enough to make me change my mind and turn back. Although there had been some rain in the morning, the rest of the day had been sunny and bright. Fall was coming on strong, and the wet dew on the stoop felt as cold as hoarfrost to my bare feet. I was surprised my breath wasn’t coming out white.

                         Hugging my arms to my chest, I set off jogging in the direction of the Security Office. I glanced up yearningly at my window as I passed beneath it: lights off, shade drawn, it looked like I was having a good night’s sleep.

                         South Field was practically deserted. Looking across at Hartley and Wallach and John Jay dormitories, only a sprinkling of rooms had any lights on. Those that did had their shades drawn so that each cast an orange, Jack-o-lantern glow out onto the quad. The overall effect was equivalent to peeking into the back of an old-time radio, at vacuum tubes glowing in the dark.

                         As I passed along the front of Journalism and then turned its corner, the herringbone, red-brick sidewalk abruptly gave way to hexagonal grey cobblestones ––no less freezing to the soles of my feet. There were shallow puddles left over from the earlier rain, and, here and there, solitary shoe trails passing through them without altering course. For me, however, the sharp sting to my feet made it worth my while to detour around.

                         I crossed over College Walk ––technically an actual city street, 116th Street, but closed off at either end by imposing, wrought-iron gates that kept out the city traffic. During gala functions, expensive cars and limousines could often be seen parked along it. Right at this moment it was empty.

                         I ascended the terraced plaza in front of Low Memorial Library. Low had been the first building constructed on the new campus when the school relocated itself from the southern tip of Manhattan ––where it had formerly been known as Kings College–– to another spot about 5 miles shy of the northern tip. An area that in 1895 was largely undeveloped. Low Memorial Library emerged out of the crop fields to become the campus centerpiece.

                         As a building, the general look was almost as if a National Monument had wandered up from Washington D.C. and squatted down on Morningside Heights. Architecturally, it was a platypus: part Parthenon, part Jefferson Memorial.

                         As an iconic centerpiece, it was a resounding success. As a library, however, it was a total failure, the primary reason being there was practically no room in it for any books; plenty of vaulted ceiling space and fancy rotunda, yes, but in terms of space for actual books, it was sorely lacking.

                         This defect was remedied in 1934 with the construction of the much-larger Nicholas Murray Butler Library, which looked across to the opposite side of South Field. Except for a few specialized collections, Low Library was a library in name only. Instead, it served numerous other functions, mostly administrative, such as housing the Office of the President, as well as, around back, serving as the central location for Campus Security.

                         Before I angled off to pass along the west side of the building, I took a quick glance back over my shoulder, looking south in the direction of downtown Manhattan. A cloud mass overhead was reflecting back a great deal of the city’s illumination, suggesting a fire out of control somewhere or the lights left on in a hundred outdoor theaters. Shakespeare’s maxim that ‘all the world’s a stage’ was particularly apropos when it came to New York City.

                         Concurrent with the lateness of the hour, the general, low-volume, white-noise, hum-of-the-hive was virtually the only sound noticeable; the exception being a high jet passing overhead that sounded like tearing fabric.

                         While continuing to skirt around and avoid puddles, I allowed my mouth to hang open so my teeth wouldn’t chatter. I couldn’t be sure, but it did seem like, beneath the milky glow from the globes of the passing lamps, my breath was coming out white. Still, there was no sign of ice forming on the puddles, and I mused that it must still be too early in the calendar for this to technically be considered Indian Summer.

                         Running along with me and parallel on my right was a six-foot-high, wooden snow fence pressed up firmly against a seven-foot-high hedgerow. Its function was to cordon off a strip of manicured lawn on the other side. The patch of grass was lit by overhead floodlights extending out and aiming down from the roof of the library. It had the inviting effect of showing off the emerald greenness of the lawn below.

                         The invitation was for appearance sake only, as the slatted fence and the tall hedgerow effectively put the area out of bounds ––a necessary stratagem for an urban campus. Keep-Off-the-Grass signs were routinely ignored.

                         As I looked to my right, through the hedgerow the scene on the other side presented a flickering image, somewhat like trying to watch a silent movie while waving your fingers up close to your face.

                         Suddenly, interposed into this frame of reference was an object badly out of place.

                         I stopped and stared. A pair of bare feet and legs stuck out from under the shrubbery on the opposite side of the enclosure. Male or female, I couldn’t tell, but from what I could make out, the person appeared not any better dressed than I was. I called over,

                         “Hey! You there, are you all right?”

                         No answer, no movement. I felt the situation required an immediate closer look and quickly searched for a way in. The only possibility presenting itself was to jump the hedgerow, which I estimated I could manage if I backed up enough, got up a good head of steam and timed my leap just right. I retreated a dozen paces from the barrier and then took off running towards it, approaching from an oblique angle.

                         Just before I got there, I launched myself upwards, springing off my right foot while throwing my left leg ahead of me, as though I were trying to swing up into a saddle on the back of an elephant.

                         It was an impressive leap in terms of height.

                         In terms of distance, it fell short.

                         I came crashing down through the hedge, breaking off stiff branches as I plummeted and then tumbled out the far side, covered with welts and bloody scratches.

                         I didn’t stop to nurse my wounds or survey the damage to the hedge. Instead, I jumped up immediately and ran to the still-immobile body. Bending down, I could see it was a woman. As I suspected, she was dressed even worse than me, having one less article of clothing than I did.

                         She was too far under the shrubbery to make out her face, which I thought would be the quickest way to give me a true indication of her condition. On my knees, I forced apart the branches and leaned in over her.

                         I was right, it was a true indication, and what it showed told me that I needn’t be in a big hurry to resuscitate. Her very white skin now had a blue pallor. There were bruises and deep indentations around her throat. Her eyes were starkly open, but not seeing. Her mouth hung slack. There was a trickle of blood out of one corner of her mouth and a smear of it across her cheek. She may have been beautiful once. Not tonight. Not ever again.

                         I felt for a pulse at her jugular vein. The vein was slack. I rested the back of my hand on her sternum. Some body heat remained, but no breath and no heartbeat.

                         A man’s voice shouted from the other side of the hedgerow,

                         “Hey! Hey! What are you doing in there?”

                         I withdrew and stood up. A campus policeman was in a crouch, shifting back and forth, trying to get a better view of me through the branches. I called over, “Officer, you better come see this.”

                         He stood up and spoke quickly into his walkie-talkie, and then, instead of attempting the same high jump I had, he ran around to the front of the Library, climbed to the top step behind the Doric columns and leapt from there over the wide clump of shrubbery. He landed, rolling to the ground like an experienced parachutist, and then sprang up to a standing position and, almost without stopping, began running right towards me.

                         Anticipating his arrival, I stepped aside to give him access to her body while, at the same time, trying to explain what I had happened upon, “Officer, she was lying here when I found her. I’m sure she’s dead. I didn’t see anyone else around.”

                         I heard the sound of more running footsteps coming from the direction of Campus Security and looked over at the reinforcements arriving.

                         Had I looked back a fraction of a second sooner, I might have seen the swinging nightstick in time to avoid the blow. As it was, I never saw it, so I never had a chance to react. In one split second I went from standing there peacefully, ready to fully cooperate with law enforcement, to collapsing in a heap like a bundle of bones.

                         I went down like a marionette with its strings cut.

 

 

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER FOUR

 ‘Police Blotto’

 

                         They say I was only unconscious for a few seconds. That I hopped up again almost immediately and started making statements to the police, speaking a mile a minute in gibberish as they handcuffed me and led me away. If that’s true, I don’t recall any of it.

                         The first thing I do remember is coming to in the back seat of a patrol car as it sped through intersections, running red lights. I didn’t know if we were headed for the hospital. I wouldn’t have objected much if that were the case. I was feeling plenty of aches and pains. The aches, localized above the shoulders, where the nightstick had walloped me. The welts and scratches, generalized all over, were souvenirs from the hedgerow and snow fence. Each was vying to do the same thing: send as many pain signals as possible through my clogged nervous system highway. 

                         We careened around a corner and I fell over. The fact that my wrists were still handcuffed behind me made it difficult to sit back up.

                         I was riding in the back of an NYPD patrol car. Apparently, the transfer of custody from campus police to city police had already taken place. I missed that.

                         At the station, I was pulled out and marched up the precinct steps. Under merciless bright lighting, the event was captured on video for posterity, as well as the morning’s newscasts, no doubt. It was absolutely amazing that the media could be on hand so quickly so late at night. However, when it comes to covering crimes of a sordid nature, journalism never sleeps.

                         I must admit too, when I saw the footage that ran, I did appear guilty. I’m sure I would have to any jury basing its verdict on looks alone. With my hands cuffed behind me, I was fast-walked between two, grim uniformed police officers who pinioned my arms and hustled me up the steps. The welts across my chest stood out starkly under the camera lights and looked exactly like fingernail scratches.

                         Inside, the brusque treatment continued. I was efficiently processed while hard, accusatory looks continued from all quarters, but no attempt was made to question me. I was then marched up two flights of stairs to a second-floor interrogation room equipped with a two-way mirror.

                         The handcuffs were not removed. “Sit,” I was told. Straight-back wooden chairs were all that were available. I sat, but didn’t lean back. Too cold. Left to wait, I shivered as the wall clock ticked off slow minutes. Meantime, no doctor.

                         The door finally re-opened just as I was dozing off. A second bank of overhead fluorescent lights buzzed on. An officer entered and removed my handcuffs, and then a detective entered. I attempted to rise.

                         “Don’t get up.”

                         She introduced herself as Detective Lippencott.

                         “Your name is Parker Robinson?”

                         “Yes.”

                         She came up to me and lifted my chin so she could examine where the nightstick had landed. Somewhere in her mid-thirties, she had eyeliner and bottle green eyes with crow’s feet at the corners.

                         “Would you like to see a doctor before we talk?”

                         “No.”

                         “How about an attorney?”

                         “I’d rather see a bed.”

                         “May I see your hands, please?”

                         I presented them. She looked them over carefully, both sides.

                         “Stand up now, please.”

                         Gingerly, I did. She examined me front to back, paying close attention to my welts.

                         “Whose fingernails did those?”

                         “The hedgerow.”

                         “Tell me what happened?”

                         I described everything from locking myself out, to sighting the body, leaping the hedgerow and then being clubbed unconscious by the overzealous campus security guard. She listened without interruption, and then, when I was finished, asked,

                         “You say you were on your way to pick up a spare key?”

                         “Yes.”

                         “Empty your pockets.”

                         “There’s nothing in them.”

                         “Turn them out anyway.”

                         I showed her.

                         “How did you get locked out?”

                         I told her about assisting Rosalyn/Joslyn to get her door opened.

                          “She’ll verify this?”

                         “I think she will.”

                         “She a friend of yours?”

                         “No. We just met.”

                         “Why did she ask you to help?”

                         “You’ll have to ask her.”

                         “Why didn’t she ask the floor counselor?”

                         “Better ask her.”

                         “I’m asking you.”

                         “I don’t think there was anything really wrong with her door.”

                         “You don’t?”

                         “I didn’t find anything wrong with it.”

                         “So, you didn’t fix it?”

                         “There was nothing to fix.”

                         “Turn around.”

                         I complied.

                         “Let me see the soles of your feet. Now, open your mouth, stick out your tongue.”

                         I did everything she asked.

                         “All right, just a minute.”

                         She went out and then returned less than half a minute later with a male officer in tow.

                         “This is Officer Looper. He’s going to examine you further.”

                         Without any additional explanation, she went out and closed the door. He asked me to lower my cutoffs. I did as told, although not without harboring some misgivings about doing it in front of the two-way mirror.

                         I joked, “Shall I cough?”

                         He took a quick look front and back and replied, “Okay, you can get dressed.”

                         That entailed pulling up my shorts. He went out and Detective Lippencott returned, this time with a blanket and a cup of coffee.

                         “Is black all right?”

                         “Warm is all that matters. Thanks.”

                         “You’ve had a rough night. I am going to ask them to run you over to the hospital for an x-ray and to patch you up. Then you’ll be dropped at your dorm. We’ll pick up your spare key for you.”

                         “Thank you.”

                         “You’re from Boston, correct?”

                         “Yes.”

                         “By any chance are you related to Commissioner Frank Robinson?”

                         “Yes, he’s my uncle and legal guardian.

                         “Then you come from good stock.”

                         Her asking that made me want to ask if she was familiar with Allison Peabody-Rusk, of Boston, but that was too far off the subject. Instead, I said, “May I ask what the search was all about?”

                         She ignored my question and asked one of her own, exactly like the trained investigator who knows how to exact information without divulging any.

                         “Did you notice anyone who could have done this?”

                         “No.”

                         “Anyone lurking about? Did you pass anyone on the way?”

                         “No. I don’t think I passed anybody. The campus was pretty well deserted at that late hour. There might have been a few people on South Field, but there was nobody around up where I found her. Except the campus cop who showed up and hit me. He was the only person I saw.”

                         I tried asking her another question, “Do you know who she was?”

                         “Don’t you know?” she countered.

                         “No.”

                         “Never saw her before?”

                         “Not to my knowledge. Was she a student?”

                         “We are still verifying. She had the same amount of ID on her as you did. Come on, I’ll walk you down.”

                         We descended to a patrol car that was waiting. I wondered aloud why The Press wasn’t there to take video of me leaving.

                         She said, “Get ready to be treated shabbily by the media. I would try to reach them to get them to change their stories, except I’m certain, at this point, they wouldn’t bother. They would much prefer to run with what they’ve got than to say you’re innocent now. Ratings and circulation, you know.

                         “But you obviously sincerely tried to help, and I’ll see to it they get it straightened out before the next news cycle. You can keep the blanket, or return it the next time you’re in the neighborhood.”

                         “Could you do me one more favor?”

                         “What’s that?”

                         “Write me a note.”

                         “For whom?”

                         “For Dean Simmons, Dean of the College, so I won’t get into trouble over this. I’m already on probation.”

                         Her face turned serious again. “Probation? What for?”

                         I could see her mind running through the list of reasons it had better not be.

                         “For playing hooky.”

                         “Oh? For how long?”

                         “Half a semester.”

                         She smiled for the first time during the interview.

                         “Never mind the note. I’ll phone your dean and your uncle, too. You can ring me if you think of anything more.”

                         “I will.”

                         She was about to leave me so I ventured a wild guess based on the trickle and smear of blood I had noticed around the victim’s mouth, “She bit him, didn’t she?”

                         “Why do you say that?”

                         “That’s how you knew I was innocent. I had scratch marks but no bite marks?”

                         She answered, “Possibly you are related to your uncle. Anyway, I’ll appreciate it if you will keep that little tidbit to yourself.”

 

 

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER FIVE

‘Dead Meat’

 

                         Horizontal rays of the rising sun were shining up 116th Street, as the patrol car I was riding in slowed down to make its turn through the gates of College Walk. A few early-morning joggers had their progress halted while the patrol car passed in front of them. They jogged in place and every one of them gazed at me, although their faces remained neutral. No doubt they were speculating about what foul crime I had committed; police cars being second only to limousines in arousing curiosity about who is in the back seat.

                         The officer swung in and drove up as far as the Sundial to let me out. Not only was the sunlight strong but it was reflected brilliantly off all the east-facing windows of Furnald, double-illuminating the west half of South Field. The place wasn’t called Morningside Heights for nothing. I felt very conspicuous stepping out of the patrol car.

                         A campus guard was waiting to receive me. He was solicitous. During the handover, he presented me with the replacement room key I had sought last night, thereby completing the mission I had embarked on what already seemed like ages ago.

                         On the fifth floor, students were up and stirring and foot traffic to the bathrooms was heavy. The showers were all going full blast. As soon as I stepped onto my floor, whom should I see coming down the hall towards me but Rosalyn/Joslyn.

                         Instinctively, I froze. My reaction upon seeing her was that I didn’t particularly want to. But I also felt a kind of relief and thanked my lucky stars that, at least, someone hadn’t murdered her, too. I could imagine myself having to explain that to Detective Lippencott!

                         What was clear is that she didn’t want to see me, either. Her impulse seemed to be to do an immediate about-face, but, since we had already noticed each other, it was too late for that. She kept coming. I watched her spine stiffen as she prepared to ignore me completely. However, if that was her intention, it didn’t work out that way.

                         Although I had the police blanket draped over my shoulders, there were still welts and scratches to be seen. When she drew close enough to see the nasty bruise on the side of my head, it caused her to halt, and raise one hand to her lips in horror.

                         I was too exhausted to volunteer an explanation and she was too timid to ask, so we both continued along our respective paths: me to my room and she to the showers. I figured that she hadn’t heard the news yet, but when she did and when she found out what I was suspected of, she would be thanking her lucky stars, that I hadn’t taken her up on her offer of a back massage.

                         On the other hand, I reflected somewhat ruefully, had I accepted her offer then none of this would have happened to me, either.

                         In my room, I doffed the blanket and my cutoffs. I wanted to take a shower but didn’t think my scratches could handle the spray nozzle, so I used the sink in my room and a washcloth to wash around the edges. Then I put on some real clothes. I was in the middle of brushing my teeth when someone came pounding on my door informing me I was on TV in the lounge.

                         News of the campus murder was spreading like wildfire. I arrived after almost everyone else from my floor had already flocked in. Many of the students from the floor party were there, looking aghast as the videotape rolled showing me being marched up the precinct steps. I looked guilty, even to me. Worst of all, I appeared to be smiling. Not that I was.

                         Larry Magnolia showed up too in time to see the videotape rolled again. He reacted with unbridled glee.

                         “Robinson, you are so dead, now. You are dead meat! You are done! You are finished! You are going to get what’s coming to you. Dean Simmons is going to chew you up and spit you straight out of here. You’re out!” It was indicative of the core of his character that he didn’t let a moment’s sympathy for the murder victim get in the way of his celebration. “Yahoo, this is like Christmas come early!”

                         I was attempting to think of a snappy retort, but my friend, Roger Novak, beat me to it.

                         “If there’s a psychopath loose on this campus, it’s you, Magnolia.”

                         He jabbed a finger through the air at him, “I got your number, Mister!”

                         Others said,

                         “Shut up!”

                         “Quiet, everybody!”

                         “Everybody!”

                         The newscast was now taking us to the spot where the body was found. A reporter was standing in front of the broken-down hedgerow, now festooned with yellow police tape. At the same time, he was pointing behind him to where the body had lain.

                         The reporter then signed off and sent the coverage back to the anchor desk. There, the anchorman continued reporting on the story. In the upper right corner of the screen was superimposed a headshot of the murdered coed.

                         It must have been her high school graduation picture. She was identified as Beverly Martindale, a junior attending Barnard. The picture showed a vivacious looking cheerleader-type, with straw blonde hair, big eyes and plenty of teeth. It was definitely the face I’d seen under the shrubbery. Except the one last night looked more like a wax mannequin than an actual human being, death having stripped away all the attributes of a living person.

                         “Anybody know her?” somebody in the room asked.

                         Nobody did. Only one said he had ever seen her around campus.

                         Following the newscast, they all wanted to hear my account, so I gave it. They all seemed to believe me, except perhaps Rosalyn/Joslyn, who had also shown up in time to see the same coverage on another channel. She still had her fingers to her lips and looked like she was now busy imaging herself lying on the other side of the police tape.

                         Larry Magnolia said it didn’t matter whether I had done it or not. Either way, my goose was cooked.

                         The lounge emptied. Everyone went off to his or her first class of the semester. I went off to three of mine in a row and found I had to give an oral report at the beginning of each one to satisfy the curiosity of both the professors and the students. Returning before lunch, there was a Post-it note on my door saying to report immediately to Dean Simmons’ office.  

 

 

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER SIX

 ‘Living Hand to Mouth’

 

                         Hamilton Hall is a hundred-year-old red brick building built in the Gothic Revival style. It is named after Alexander Hamilton, whose larger-than-life statue stands out front. Its upper floors are devoted to classrooms and faculty offices, while its lowest ––the basement–– is given over to administrative offices, including the Office of the Dean.

                         Entering the building, I headed downstairs where I presented myself to the receptionist, telling him I was there to see the dean. He relayed word back to central command. A short while later the dean’s personal secretary ––a matronly woman, wearing a conservative suit the color of an exam Blue Book–– came out to escort me back. Her shiny black hair matched her shiny black shoes. No pleasantries were exchanged in route. Nor did she show the slightest maternal concern about my injuries.

                         I had to pass through a metal detector. It was a safety measure arising from an ugly incident during the 1970’s when a disgruntled student, upset over his grades, ungraciously pumped five bullets into the then acting dean. Miraculously, the dean survived, but the permanent change it had wrought was reflected by the screening equipment.

                         Reaching her office, she indicated an empty chair against the wall. I sat down and began waiting. After quite a spell, I inquired if she could tell me how much longer I would have to wait. She volunteered that she couldn’t say. I had a sneaky suspicion this wait was fully intentional, but I also concluded there was no way I could ask to be excused to come back later.

                         I tried meditating with my eyes closed. I must have nodded off because my head suddenly snapped to attention with the ringing of bells sounding in unison throughout the building. A few seconds later, from far off, came the sounds of voices flowing out of the classrooms. The chatter moved to the stairwells, where the sound of hundreds of shuffling footsteps turned into thunderous cascading footfalls. The crash-bar handles of the front doors banged open noisily and student voices were raised another notch or two as they stepped out-of-doors.

                         Glancing up at the line of casement windows that ran along the south-facing wall, I watched as a procession of pant legs passed by on the other side of the shrubbery. All moving in the same direction, they resembled the lower half of a Chinese dragon on parade. By degrees, the cavalcade of legs thinned out until it became just a few stragglers going by, and then ceased altogether. There was a slack-water pause, during which no legs passed by from either direction. Then ––the tide reversing–– the centipede procession came on again, heading the opposite way and re-entering the building.

                         The secretary was paying not the slightest heed. Closing my eyes again, I listened as the previous sounds were repeated in reverse order: the doors of the front portals opening, the loud voices modulating slightly, then the marching steps climbing the staircases ––not quite as thunderous as the footfalls descending. The cacophony of voices tapered off into murmurs as the hallways cleared, then were pinched off completely as the classroom doors were shut. Finally, the shrill bells sounded in unison again and the quiet of the Lecture Hall descended once more. Another round of classes had begun.

                         Pretty much the same way it’s been happening for the past quarter millennium.

                         After what seemed like another quarter millennium, the dean’s secretary finally said, “You may go in now.”

                         I smiled as I rose. She returned a frosty look about like a juror does who has already found you guilty. That was it, I figured. My diploma must be toast.

                         Passing through a narrow entryway ––somewhat uncomfortably suggestive of a birth canal–– I entered Dean Simmons’ cloistered office. He was seated at the opposite end of the room, behind an antique, wormwood desk, possibly a relic left over from the Spanish Inquisition. Without looking up, he addressed me in a dismissive tone-of-voice,

                         “Have a seat, Mr. Robinson.”

                         I did as bid. The overstuffed chair had short legs which put me at a disadvantage by rendering me a head lower than he was when I sat. Since he had not even looked up, he obviously had made no move to rise or shake hands. With one arm in his lap and the other holding what appeared to be a fountain pen, he continued bent over his task, like a monk illuminating a sacred text. Or he may have just been doodling, for all I could tell.

                         Finally, he set his writing instrument aside, which meant inserting the pen in a pen holder at the edge of his desk that featured a bronze statue of a recumbent lion. For the first time, he looked directly at me, but he had yet to say another word. I think his intent was to make me squirm.

                         My impression was that he looked like a humorless Friar Tuck. His tonsured bald head was surrounded by a fringe of wispy brown hair, somewhat suggestive of both the dome of Low Library and its surrounding shrubbery.

                         His eyebrows ––bushy as a wooly bear caterpillar’s–– looked like they were busy crawling off in opposite directions. Above them, he had deep-set worry lines etched in his forehead, like a stave of music that had yet to be scored. He had another set of worry lines around his pursed mouth. It was a good guess he was holding in his anger.

                         He wore the traditional dark blue blazer. This one had an embroidered patch sewn over his left breast pocket showing a heraldic lion rearing up on its hind legs. Beneath it was the University’s motto: ‘In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen’, translated meant, ‘In Thy Light Shall We See the Light’. I was seeing a fair amount reflected off his head.

                         “Tell me, Mr. Robinson, are you familiar with the fact that three U.S. presidents have attended this University?”

                         “No.”

                         “Two signers of the Declaration of Independence?”

                         “I wasn’t aware of that.”

                         “Eighty-two Nobel Prize winners –– and counting?”

                         “That many?”

                         “Do you know what all these people had in common?”

                         I didn’t bother taking a guess. I figured he was going to tell me anyway.

                         “Each one of them bestowed honor and dignity on this institution.”

                         He paused for dramatic effect.

                  “Whereas you, Mr. Robinson, have not. Have you?”

                         “Not yet.”

                         “In fact, you have done just the opposite.”

                         “I didn’t murder her, Dean Simmons, I only found her body.”

                         “So the police tell me, but they won’t tell me how they know that. Were you so informed?”

                         “No. The police didn’t tell me anything.”

                         “How many parties did you attend last night?”

                         “Parties? A couple.”

                         “How much alcohol did you consume?”

                         “None. I’m not allowed to.”

                         “Mr. Robinson, I am not concerned at this moment with whether or not you have violated any of the rules of your probation –you probably have–– but the matter I have before me is considerably more serious than that. What I want to know from you is: did you consume enough of anything that could have caused you to black out any portion of last night?”

                          “No. The only part I blacked out was after the security guard clubbed me unconscious when I wasn’t looking.”

                         His demeanor shifted to become more defensive, “The guard’s actions were entirely reasonable, considering.”

                         “I don’t know about that,” I said. “I was standing passively inside the hedgerow. There was no way out. I wasn’t running away.”

                         “He found you lying on top of her. She was naked. You were practically so. You were covered with her blood and her fingernail scratches, and, furthermore, you had a crazed look on your face.”

                         “The guard must have been looking in the mirror. He’s the one who had a crazed look.”

                         “You’ve thought about this pretty carefully, haven’t you?”

                         “As a matter of fact, I haven’t.”

                         “I’m not going to argue with you. If you intend on suing the university, go ahead. You won’t win and you’ll still be expelled.”

                         “Who said anything about suing?”

                         He paused and looked at me appraisingly. He then rolled his chair back a few inches ––enough to allow him access to his desk’s middle drawer–– and, keeping his left hand in his lap–– with his right hand, he removed a sheet of paper from the drawer and tossed it across the desk to me.

                         “Then sign that and be done with it.”

                         I may not have been thinking about it carefully, but, obviously, someone had.

                         “Sign that, and I will overlook your probation violations. You can return to your classes. You might even graduate.”

                         “What does it say?”

                         “It says you agree to hold the university blameless.”

                         With the same hand, he plucked the fountain pen from the lion holder and held it across to me, as if it were the butt end of a dagger. I was tempted to jokingly bring up the matter of my rescinded scholarship, but decided not to. Dean Simmons was the kind of authority figure with whom it was never a good idea to attempt to bargain or try to place oneself on equal footing. I had leverage now, but that would vanish as soon as I signed.

                         Not having any intention of suing the university anyway, I signed. He took back the document and returned it to his desk drawer, locking it inside.

                         “You know, Mr. Robinson, I have a hard time understanding college bums like you. Every class has its few. You take your educations so frivolously. To you it’s just a silly game, isn’t it? A four-year idle ride and when you get bored, you sneak off to Hawaii to go surfing.”

                         He paused for a reply. Unless required, I wasn’t about to give one.

                         “I thought so. Very well. Go away now.”

                         I rose to leave. Before I got to the door, he added,

                         “But just so we understand each other: any more violations or any more shenanigans of any kind that further embarrasses this institution, and you can expect that you will be expelled and that, this time, it will be permanent. Not even your mentor, Professor Hopkins, will be able to save you the next time.”

                         So as not to completely roll over and play submissive, I said, “Would you agree, Dean Simmons, that the person who actually hurt the school’s reputation is the person who committed the murder?”

                         “No, I would not agree with that. Not entirely.”

                         “You wouldn’t?”

                         “No, I would not. Let me explain something to you that you obviously fail to grasp: Our reputation is this school’s most valuable asset. Based on the strength and solidity of that reputation, important decisions get made by many important people from many sectors of life that greatly affect this college and this university.”

                         He brought both hands up as if he was going to enumerate them for me and, in doing so ––for the first time–– brought his left hand into view. I was startled to see it was bandaged. Strips of gauze were wound across his palm and the back of his hand. Taking a guess, it looked like the primary site of the injury was concentrated along the fleshy heel of the hand, or that part that palm-readers refer to as the Mound of Luna.

                         The dean was still blathering, “. . . wealthy alumni who each year donate large sums, who remember us in their wills, not to mention the directors and trustees of philanthropic foundations. Our reputation commands respect from many other academic institutions, from government agencies, from corporations, from think tanks, and from every sector of the civilized world. And, it is on the strength of this reputation that determinations are made of who gets the bequests and who gets the research money and the best faculty, and so forth and so on and so on . . .”

                         I was going to say ‘Hear, hear’ if he said one more ‘and so on’. But he didn’t, so I kept my mouth shut.

                         I assumed he was done and began heading out, but he stopped me again,

                         “There is one more thing,” he said. “There is the other important category I haven’t mentioned: Students. The best and the brightest. We compete for them.

                         “And each year tens of thousands of high school juniors have to make the first big decision of their lives, maybe the most important decision they will ever make, and one that has to have Mom and Dad’s approval as well, and that is to decide which schools they are going to apply to.

                         “Now, what effect do you suppose it has on any of those decision-makers when they happen to turn on their breakfast TVs in the morning and see a half-naked Columbia student marched in handcuffs up the police house steps, scratched and bleeding and grinning, for God’s sake!”

                         “It wasn’t a grin, sir. It was a wince, I assure you. I was in pain and the lights were making me squint . . .”

                         “No, it doesn’t work that way. You see, you looked like you were grinning! And that, I’m telling you, is the image that is going to stick in people’s minds and be remembered by everyone who saw it. Just as, during the Sixties, the photo of the student radicals who had taken over the President’s office and were sitting in his chair and smoking his cigars, that was the image of Columbia that everyone remembered for years and years afterwards. So, when I say it was you who hurt the school’s reputation, I mean: it was you!

                         “It doesn’t matter at all that I’m not guilty? That I am completely innocent in all this?

                         “It matters to the police; it matters less to me, as I just explained. Although, I would still like to know why you are no longer considered a suspect? Are you sure Detective Lippencott didn’t tell you?”

                         “You know the police. They’re pretty tight-lipped. . .”

                         “Well. Meeting over. Leave.”

                  This was as close to a ‘vaya con dios’ as I was going to get.”

                         His dismissal was accompanied by a flip of his bandaged hand, which he did without thinking and which resulted in a fleeting stab of pain ––a wince of his own–– registering on his face. Obviously, I had misread the creases in his forehead for worry lines when they were actually caused by a freshly throbbing injury.

                         As I let myself out, I stopped by the secretary’s desk to politely inquire how the dean had hurt his hand.

                         She said non-responsively, “Yes, he did,”.

                         “How?” I asked again.

                         She gave me a withering look and in a crisp, one sentence reply, said,

                         “He was bitten by a dog.”

                         “No kidding? A dog?”

                         “Yes.”

                         “What kind of dog?”

                         “I wasn’t there.”

                         “Last night?”

                         She didn’t reply, so I added, “It’s a good thing it wasn’t a lion.”

                         “Why is that?”

                         “Because –you know what they say– ‘He who has his hand in the lion’s mouth, must pull it out as best he can.

                         “Who’s they?

                         “It’s an old Greek proverb ––or maybe a Scottish proverb, I’m not sure.” Still fishing for more information, I ventured, “Dog bites are serious. I hope he’s had it looked after.”

                         “He’s seen a doctor, thank you.”

                         She wasn’t thanking me.

                         I offered a generous smile, and she returned a frozen facsimile. She leaned forward in her chair, folded her arms and positioned her elbows on the little padded corners of her desk blotter. It was a clear signal that we were at the end of the line, conversation-wise. I wished her a good day.

                         Walking away, I repeated to myself the proverb: ‘He who has his hand in the lion’s mouth must pull it out as best he can’.

                         The same might be said of the mouth of a dog.

                         Or possibly even the mouth of a murdered coed.

 

 

S T A L K I N G   L I O N S

CHAPTER SEVEN

 ‘Hard to Tell Witch’

 

                         The uproar over the Barnard student’s murder lasted about three weeks, then campus life settled down to normal. Not that anyone lost interest in the subject or stopped discussing it. It remained the talk of the Upper West Side.

                         My life returned to normal as well; my notoriety fading along with the scratches. Any additional knowledge I gained as to how the murder investigation was proceeding was limited to what I read in the campus Daily Spectator and other New York papers. My last personal involvement had been when I phoned Detective Lippencott following my meeting with Dean Simmons and informed her about the dean’s bandaged hand. She said she would look into it.

                         The semester rolled on. By the end of October, the trees around the quads had changed their costumes from muted, hospital-greens to the colors of clown suits and jester outfits. The poet, Joyce Kilmer, attended the college in 1907 and 1908 and it would be curious to speculate whether any of these stately trees could have been the inspiration for his famous poem, Trees.

                         Tomorrow was Halloween and also the beginning of mid-terms. Perfect synchronicity it turns out for the ghostly incident that was about to take place.

                         Around ten o’clock that evening, I decided to take a break from studying and venture forth to a nearby deli for a sandwich. Passing through the vestibule and stepping into the out-of-doors, I felt the impact of the night’s turbulent weather. Strong winds, ushering in from across the Hudson, were now violently shaking and ruffling the canopies of those trees, as if they were the skirts of can-can dancers.

                         Heading off campus via the granite steps of Carmen Gate, I noticed a strange looking female on her way up ––although maybe not so strange considering the season. She was dressed in witch’s attire: her costume consisting of the traditional black gown, black cape and pointy black hat. The hat was secured against the wind by a chin strap, and peeking out beneath it was a neon-pink straw wig. The topper to her outfit was a novelty-store Halloween mask modeled after the ‘Old Hag’ from Disney’s Snow White

                         As soon as she saw me, she stopped climbing. ­­Silent and spooky, she stood there, watching me come down. As I drew abreast of her, I realized she was too completely covered up for me to have any idea who she was or even if I knew her at all.

                         Another oddity, instead of a broomstick, she was hauling a bass fiddle zipped in its brown canvas cover. I was fairly certain it didn’t belong with the costume and also fairly certain I didn’t know anybody who played that instrument.      

                         Smiling at both her costume and her theatrics, I said, “Nice witch.”

                         She didn’t reply, but continued staring, or perhaps glaring. It was hard to tell what was going on behind that mask. I indicated the big fiddle and said,

                         “Must be easier getting around on that than a broomstick?”

                         This produced exactly no response whatsoever, just the same chilling stare, so I continued passing along my way, which, generally speaking, is the advisable thing to do in New York City whenever you encounter odd, strange or eccentric behavior ––even if it is All Hallows Eve.

                         As I exited and turned left onto Broadway, I glanced back over my shoulder. She hadn’t moved and she was still continuing to track me.

                         This being Exam Week, both the Campus Inn and Tom’s Restaurant were nearly devoid of the usual pack of idlers, but the sandwich lines in the deli shops were long and slow moving. While taking my spot at the end of one line, I had plenty of time to study a beer advertisement that featured full-size, cardboard cut-outs of three vampire beauties, wearing tight, black dresses. One of them reminded me a little of Loni Kim ––my Hawaiian girlfriend–– minus the incisors.

                         Sandwich, dill pickle and chocolate drink in hand, I retraced my steps back to campus, fighting the buffeting blasts of wind that carried stinging grit and had enough strength behind them to force me lean into them or take side-steps against them. Reclimbing the Carmen Gate steps, the spooky witch had moved off.

                         Back in Furnald and back inside my room, all was snug but not all was quiet. In addition to the continuous rattling of my ill-fitting, double-hung window, there was the hiss and sputter of the radiator at the foot of my bed, with its periodic metal clangs issuing up the pipes. It was as if there were a working forge and village blacksmith operating in the basement.

                         Returning to the grind, I sat down at my desk, twisted the cap off my chocolate drink, unwrapped my sandwich and anchored my open book on my desk so I could continue cramming while eating. I had wedged my door open to indicate social availability to any floormates or friends wishing to drop by for a chat.

                         I had just swallowed my first bite, followed by my first sip, when a shadow from the hallway caught my attention. I turned to see the Snow White witch again walking towards me. She was minus her big fiddle.

                         She stopped in the doorway, again remaining wordless.

                         “Am I supposed to guess who you are?” I asked.

                         No reply.

                         “I hope you didn’t leave your fiddle double-parked somewhere.”

                         She stepped inside, kicked the door wedge out and let the door swing shut behind her.

                        “Hey! Don’t close that.”

                         Her response was to pull a small caliber pistol out from under her cape and point it at me like she was about to fire.

                         My immediate reaction was to launch myself backwards in my chair, with a vague notion somehow of performing a backward somersault that would place me outside her line of fire. However, the rear legs of my chair, unable to roll, instead merely scooted out from under me and I ended up flat on my back staring up at Broomhilda. She was now standing above me and sighting down the barrel of her gun. And she was aiming it directly at my face.

                         She finally spoke her first words, “Don’t move.”

(Copyright 2020, Steven Thomas Oney)

 

 

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