A Function of Murder


A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery


What's not to like about graduation ceremonies?

The speeches? Can't get enough of them. The flowers, balloons, parties, screaming coeds? Love them all. Every year I look forward to a long line of students filing by, one by one, switching the tassels on their mortarboards. I get a shiver of delight as I join the procession, my heavy silk and velvet robes weighing me down. What a pleasure it is to walk around the pathways of the campus and onto the great lawn, Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary ringing out through the stifling hot and humid air. I never want it to end.


Today, as the faculty sat outside on a makeshift stage, our uncomfortable folding chairs seemed to sway with every warm breeze.

Fran, my colleague in the Henley College Mathematics Department, nudged me.

"Professor Knowles, are you bored silly?" she whispered.

"Totally, Professor Emerson," I said. "Are you stuck to your chair?"

"Like white on the blackboards," answered Fran, who was old enough to remember chalk. "Can you believe this guy? Could he be less inspiring?" Fran gave a surreptitious nod in the direction of the podium where Mayor Edward P. Graves was holding forth as our keynote speaker. The P. was important to distinguish him from his father, Edward D., and his grandfather, Edward K., who had been our mayors before him.

At only thirty-nine, five years my junior, the current Edward Graves was in the middle of his first term as the youngest mayor in the history of Henley, Massachusetts. Sadly, however, it hadn't taken him long to pick up the walk and the talk of the average gray-haired politician. He seemed to have put on his smile at the same time as his highly polished shoes.

"Graduations are double milestones in our lives, because they celebrate the proud accomplishments of our past, while also looking forward to the future," the latest Mayor Graves said now, as if it were an original, quotable thought and nicely put. Hadn't Madeline Albright said it better at my own baccalaureate, lo those many years ago?

Edward P.'s wife, Nora, perfectly coiffured, sat a row in front of Fran and me, across the aisle, knocking knees with the deans and other college and town officials. She'd already received a commendation from the college president, for her "generous, outstanding work with all the major charities of this city." Nora Graves kept a steady, pleasant look on her face, apparently neither bored nor sweaty, as Fran and I were. Even without the hat hair I was about to reveal as soon as I removed my velvet tam, my short dark hair would never look as good as our First Lady's.

I desperately wished I'd brought a puzzle with me, something with wires or magnets that I could put together by touch as I kept my hands under my robes. Too late now. I made a note to put a couple of pocket-size puzzles with my robes when I packed them away, so I'd be better prepared next year. And hadn't we already been on this stage for a year?

Mayor Graves had not been the unanimous choice for commencement speaker. We'd had a last-minute cancellation and the dean had called an emergency meeting for a replacement. Many of us would have preferred a person of academic standing, like the originally scheduled speaker, who was a retired dean of a Boston medical school. Not that I'd been asked, but I'd have recommended one of any number of noted mathematicians in the greater Boston area. A sparkling equation would have made a nice addition to the commencement address.

I glanced across the aisle at art history instructor Chris Sizemore, to see how she was holding up. Chris had been one of the most adamant that we should have looked to educational institutions, not to city hall, for a speaker. Her chin rested low on her chest, her long brown hair falling like a veil over her face. She might have been asleep. Not a bad choice.

Next to her, Montgomery "Monty" Sizemore, Chris's older brother and Adjunct Professor in Henley's new business program, was awake, but agitated, appearing to be commenting under his breath, perhaps doing business through his Bluetooth. Another decent choice.

The lunchroom rumor mill suggested that Monty had his own special beef with Mayor Graves over some consulting work his Boston-based company had done for the city of Henley. At issue this month was the waste-management contract, with two contenders, one the mayor's choice, the other Monty's.

Groan. Why did I have to think of garbage now? Wasn't I hot and uncomfortable enough? Maybe that's why Monty was cringing, too, with his mind on which company would be granted the privilege of transporting our smelly refuse to the town dump.

All in all, surveying the faculty, noting the scattered smiles and frowns, it wasn't hard to figure out where each one stood on the dicey issue of commencement speaker.

The Henley College Faculty Senate debate had ended when the scales were tipped by an announcement: young Cody Graves, the mayor's son, who'd be entering his senior year of high school in the fall, had already applied for admission to our college. The gossip from Admissions further hinted that a new gym might be in the offing—the Graves Athletic Center, to be exact—a critical addition now that men were admitted to the Henley campus. It seemed no one noticed the poor condition of our sports facilities until the first coed class arrived last September.

The prospects of a celebrity freshman next year and a new gym to follow outweighed any desire for academic integrity. Also overshadowed was any suggestion that the mayor's business dealings might be questioned—was there a waste-management CEO among his campaign contributors, for example? It seemed we were willing to risk a few boos from the crowd. None came. Instead, we entertained a strong but civilized undercurrent of disapproval from those on the stage.

From behind the podium, the town's top guy rambled on. "Today is not an end, but a beginning."

Another groan. I fanned myself with the fancy vellum program and considered texting Fran, sitting next to me. If our advanced calculus students could thumb their way through a lecture, texting across a classroom aisle, why couldn't we do a little business as we sat side by side? We'd already stayed quiet during the long ecumenical invocation, stood for the national anthem, and then sat again for speeches by esteemed college administrators and dignitaries from as far away as Boston (thirty miles) and Providence, Rhode Island (twenty miles). Since the speeches began, I'd counted nineteen appearances by the word future and twelve by the word beginning, or forms thereof.

By far the best address today had come from one of the valedictorians, Kira Gilmore. Kira was also active in town politics, known to be one of the best workers at Mayor Graves's campaign headquarters. Too bad he hadn't sought her help with his speech. I imagined he was too busy pushing ahead with his career strategy of running for state Senator before he completed his term as mayor.

I'll admit I may have paid more attention to Kira since she was a math major with a distinguished academic record and a professionally recognized senior thesis. Kira was what my mother would have called high-strung. I was sure there was a more trendy psychological term now for someone who was highly excitable and could make herself ill over the smallest bit of stress. She'd come to my office yesterday, the day before her graduation, and threatened to opt out of her place on the program.

"I can't do it, Doctor Knowles," she'd said. "There'll be so many people sitting out there, watching me fall all over myself."

I was ready with a canned routine that I used periodically on the privileged students of Henley College.

"Will your parents be among those sitting on the lawn tomorrow?" I asked Kira.

"Uh-huh, they got in from California last night."

"And, tell me, do you owe a lot in student loans?" I asked, knowing that Kira's hard-working parents had footed the entire bill for her degree.

Kira had looked perplexed. "Uh, no, I didn't take out any loans. I thought you knew that my mom and dad paid for—." She'd paused and ventured a tiny smile. "Okay, Doctor Knowles. I get it. My parents deserve to see me up there. It's not about me; it's about them."

"What a nice thought," I'd said.

In the end, as always, Kira had done beautifully. She'd opened her speech with a quote from Milton Berle, surely passed on by her grandmother, "If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door," and closed with "Let's party tonight and change the world tomorrow."

I'd clapped loudly and whispered under my breath: Nice going, Kira. MIT was so smart to accept you for grad school.

With Mayor Graves still at the podium, I slid my hand through the slit on the seam of my robe and fumbled around for my skirt pocket where my phone lay among paper clips, coins, rubber bands, and a roll of antacids. Fran and I could at least work on some issues by text. I was chair this year and I needed to remind Fran to give me her fall schedule for the bulletin. It would also be useful to have her recommendation for where my boyfriend, Bruce, and I might stay on The Cape next weekend, plus I wanted her recipe for lasagna. A whole array of important things needed attention. We shouldn't be wasting precious time.

My attempt at a covert action was disrupted by polite applause from the stage and from the lawn. The mayor had finished. I'd missed his closing lines, but I'd have bet they included the phrase Go forth.

"Notice who isn't clapping?" Fran asked me, as we both joined in the applause.

"Besides Chris and her brother? Lots. I'm just glad they're not booing."

As the mayor returned from the podium, he caught my eye and smiled. A big surprise. I recovered in time to smile back. He raised his eyebrows in a question and mouthed words that looked like See you, a sentiment that did not at all fit our relationship, which amounted to crossing paths now and then at a charter school where I volunteered. Kira helped out at his campaign headquarters, but I'd never been there. I couldn't think of any other interaction we might have had that would have prompted a See you notice.

"What was that about?" Fran asked, removing any doubt that the gesture was meant for me and not someone sitting behind or in front of me. Nor had it been a nervous twitch.

"I have no idea," I said. "Probably part of his twenty-four-seven campaign mode. A verbal handshake for a voter."

Mayor Graves stopped where his wife sat, took her by the elbow and led her off the stage, walking toward the back. Who could blame them for escaping before the conferring of degrees? I envisioned him dumping his robes on the nearest empty chair and silently greeting everyone in the rows behind me with the same See you gesture he'd given me.

"Apparently, you rate more than the city's education bigwig these days," Fran said.

I knew what she meant. "I'm surprised he agreed to come," I said, glancing back at Superintendent of Schools Patrick Collins, who had his arms folded across his chest. I suspected he'd sat that way throughout the mayor's speech. It was a great way for academics at all levels to make a point without looking boorish themselves. Simply cross your arms and have people speculate as to what it is that you, in your great wisdom, disagree with.

"I wonder how that's all going to end," Fran said.

"Not well," I suggested, recalling a month's worth of newspaper headlines about the issues separating the superintendent of schools and the mayor. Poor Mayor Graves. I didn't understand why anyone would want the job of dealing with all the city's challenges, from its educational institutions to its waste disposal.

The current classroom dispute was over the performance and the funding of the charter schools in town. Bitter words were exchanged and documented in living detail. I felt sorry for the bald, aging superintendent who had to compete aesthetics-wise with our young, buff mayor and his full head of auburn hair.

My own experience as a volunteer at the Zeeman Charter School, also known as Zeeman Academy, was mixed. I avoided the principal and the other administrators, who often seemed to be caught up in unnecessary paperwork and bureaucratic details, but I loved the students—full disclosure: I love all students—and kept at it as part of my lifelong mission for math literacy.

I'd chosen Zeeman because of its business orientation and well-known selection of internships for its older elementary school students. To me, mathematics was the ultimate field for everyone, offering both beautiful equations and the most practical, business-friendly methods, and I wanted to get that message across early.

We'd reached the exciting time in the Henley College commencement program when roughly five hundred students would be entered into the ranks of the college educated.

The practice of having every student's name called out ended a couple of years ago, when the exercises began to take longer than a two-credit class. Now students stood in blocks and degrees were awarded according to their major departments. Only the honors students paraded across the stage as their names were announced. Individual parchments for the gen pop of graduates were handed out later at separate, smaller department gatherings. My mouth watered as I thought of the catered appetizers that would be served to math and science graduates in my building shortly. Or longly.

During the transition at the podium, I heard a lot of shuffling behind me as some of those in the back rows felt they could follow the mayor's example and slip out unnoticed. Lucky me, sitting toward the front. Trapped. I mopped my brow in as ladylike a manner as possible and without knocking my tam off my head.

"I have an idea," Fran whispered through a barely open mouth.

"Anything. Show me what you've got," I said, as President Olivia Aldridge called for American Studies majors to stand. Only twenty-four departments to go, all the way past English Literature and Political Science to Theatre Arts, and ending with Women's Studies.

I felt a poke from Fran and then something sliding across my lap. I pulled my robe over the new item, leaving only a small viewing space. I snuck a look and saw Fran's new smartphone with a wordplay game underway.

"I'm in," I whispered.

She'd started by forming the word "windy." I checked the set of letters available to me and moved a word into place around her i: tickle.

Our phones were smart enough to know the value of each letter and kept score for us. It was twelve to twelve, and we were off.

Fran and I looked up now and then to clap for a student we'd taught, and finally to watch mortarboards soar through the air.

"Another class goes off into the world," she said.

I nodded. "I hope they're ready."

"The students or the world?"