The Probability of Murder

A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery


Sophie finds herself in the middle of an investigation after her friend, Henley College librarian, Charlotte Crocker, is found dead in the stacks. When Sophie learns that Charlotte wasn't the quiet, law-abiding citizen she seemed to be, she sets out to determine who her friend really was, and to find her killer. As she deals with a group of lottery players, winners and losers, the odds are Sophie will solve the puzzle.


Another Friday, another party in the Benjamin Franklin Hall lounge, the most rocking place on the Henley College campus. Putting Henley, Massachusetts on the map.

Pity the poor humanities majors, with no building to call their own, no colorful mathematicians and scientists to celebrate.

Today the honoree was mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius.

"The wicked superhero," cracked the computer genius Daryl Farmer, a freshman all the way from California. "How old is the dude? Like, two hundred and seven?" Daryl stood, with one hand in his jeans pocket, the other on his hip. Apparently the guy was unconcerned about aggravating his statistics professor, who could manipulate his grade. If I were so inclined.

"Two twenty-one," I said, amazed at how close he'd come.

"Wish I had a blow-up of the dude for the wall on my side of the dorm."

Nerdy, sarcastic guys like Daryl were a new addition to the former women-only college. I liked them.

Daryl did have a point about the abstruse personalities my Mathematics Department came up with when it was our turn to choose a theme for the weekly celebrations.

The parties in the Franklin Hall lounge were sponsored by its occupants, in ascending order, by floor: the departments of mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry. We took over the otherwise drab uncarpeted room on the first floor and displayed posters and equipment that evoked the Woman, or Man of the Week.

I loved teaching math. I didn't even mind the extra work involved in chairing my department this year. But there was no question that the gatherings were more fun when one of the sciences was in charge.

Since classes, and the parties, started eight weeks ago, the get-togethers they'd sponsored involved safety glasses, asbestos gloves, magnets, and, almost always, things that plugged in and flashed on and off. We'd seen colored smoke, fire, and liquids that changed hues before our eyes. Stiff competition, the only drawbacks being the unhealthy smells when the Biology Department took the lead and the risk of an explosion when it was the Chemistry Department's day.

Our fun meetings had grown from seasonal, to monthly, and now weekly. The idea was to motivate the math and science majors to read beyond their textbooks and their mandatory class assignments and interest them in the historical backgrounds of the celebrities in their fields.

"Bring them in with food; keep them here with the excitement of learning," said my optimistic colleague, Fran Emerson as we took seats next to each other for the Mobius presentation.

We faculty were cheered by an SRO crowd today as most weeks, refusing to believe the free snacks and soft drinks that lined the conference table were the main attraction. Glancing at the paper plates in the hands of many students, overflowing with cheese, crackers, fruit, and enough brownies for their own dorm party, I could tell some food budgets ran out by Friday afternoon.

A senior physics major took it upon herself to bring us to order, using a bell and clapper from the storeroom to get our attention. Students made a last minute dash to the goodies on the conference table and eventually took seats on chairs or on the floor and fell silent.

Today the petite sophomore Chelsea Derbin, a match in height to my five-three, was up, ready to wow us with a talk about one-sided surfaces. After a short talk on the life and times of Mobius, she led the group in the construction of a Mobius strip.

"Take a strip of paper and twist one end before gluing the ends together," she instructed, as she demonstrated.

"Way to go, Chelsea," Daryl said.

Chelsea did her best to ignore him. "See," she proclaimed as she ran her marker around the newly formed surface. There's just one side now! How cool is that!"

"What can you do with it?" Daryl challenged, from his lofty perch as the star student in our recently created computer science program. Daryl's question seemed more intimidating, perhaps due to his imposing physique and a look that was more mature than many of the young men who were now part of the Henley student body.

Though Daryl could be annoying, this was the kind of participation and intelligent questioning I relished, not just from the new male students, but from all of them. It had been a tough road overcoming the resistance from both administration and alumnae to going coed. I wanted to think it was worth it.

I was still getting used to seeing names like William and Zachary mixed in with the Megans and Kaylas. I didn't even mind that I couldn't tell simply from the roster if Lindsey, Blair, and Devon were girls or boys.

Chelsea's eyes grew wide at this new challenge from Daryl. She bit her lip and finally squeaked out, "You can cut this different ways and get a bunch of intertwining loops?" Chelsea's ending with a question gave the lie to the excitement and confidence she tried to pour into her delicate voice. Usually one to wear flowery print dresses, today Chelsea had chosen jeans and an oversize sweater. The better to hide in?

Chelsea looked at me. "Dr. Knowles?" she said, a plea for help. Her enthusiasm over Mobius strips begetting more Mobius strips wasn't catching on among the noshing crowd in front of her. I'd hoped Chelsea, a small-town girl from the Midwest, had gotten over her timidity this year, but I could see she'd hit her limit this afternoon. She was a nervous wreck, even more so than I'd anticipated. Much as I hated to, I stepped in.

"What can you do with that beaded necklace?" I asked Daryl, grateful for the rise in popularity of unisex jewelry.

Daryl balanced his salt-laden snack plate on his knees and fingered the brown and ivory shell pieces. "These are beautiful heishi beads with a lot of meaning. I got it directly from a Native American woman sitting on a rug in New Mexico. It doesn't have to be functional."

Aha! A perfect opportunity to make a parallel with mathematics.

"And it might come in handy some day if you need a miniature lasso in a hurry?" I said.

Daryl smiled and I sensed he knew where I was going. "Yeah, I guess so."

I cleared my throat in preparation for my timeworn speech about the beauty of mathematics, the meaning it brought to universal patterns, and its usefulness in describing the physical world.

In the nick of time, a lovely distraction appeared at the doorway. My boyfriend, medevac helicopter pilot Bruce Granville, who never bored eighteen-year-olds when he gave talks about his job. It wasn't fair that he had dark good looks plus larger-than-life stories to tell.

I wasn't the only one to notice. "Your hunky guy is here, Sophie," said Fran.

I'd recently inherited the department chairmanship from Fran, who now directed the computer science program. Her new bob and black designer jeans—her idea of casual Friday dress—made Fran the youngest looking grandmother I knew.

I caught Bruce's eye through the crowd and sent him my best smile, which carried the promise of a great weekend.

The novelty clock on the wall, with its "pi" notation, read four-thirty. Bruce had appeared with military precision, appropriate to a former Air Force man, at sixteen thirty to claim me from the drudgery of classroom life.

Known to all the Franklin Hall faculty and many of the students, Bruce greeted them as he made his way through the room to me. That he was wearing his well-aged bomber jacket from his dad's army days added to his appeal and snatched the stage from a grateful Chelsea.

"Time to go. Thanks, all you guys," Chelsea said, with relief in her voice. She gathered her meager demonstration equipment—scrap paper, scissors, and a marker— and turned off the boom box that aired her syncopated background music. She'd given it her best shot. I gave her a reassuring word, about the next time, and so on, but she rushed by me, saying, "Restroom." I had an idea why. I hoped I hadn't pushed her too hard to take charge of today's show-and-tell.

"Let's give a shout out to Chelsea," Daryl said to her retreating back.

"Woo hoo," sang a small chorus of her peers, those who weren't already connected to their smartphones.

Meanwhile, my handsome dark-eyed date was closing the gap between us, chatting with people as he did so.

"Do you know what's going on over at the library?" I heard Bruce ask Fran. She shook her head. "Nothing I know of."

"The place is surrounded," he said.

"Surrounded by what?" I asked, joining them.

"There's a fleet of cop cars in front of the building," Bruce said. "The main library gate's closed off. I had to park across the street and walk in through the tennis courts."

That was strange enough. Then I became aware of ringing cell phones in all corners of the room. The sound wasn't that unusual since the official end of the party also meant cell phones could be turned back on, but there seemed to be an inordinate number of calls coming in today, their varied ringtones creating a mathematically complex cacophony.

"Could it be just campus security having a meeting?" Fran asked.

"Nuh-uh," Bruce said. "I doubt it. Unless it's an emergency drill. I saw an ambulance headed into the gate, plus all the patrol cars from town. Official Henley PD. You know, protect and serve." Bruce saluted and Fran laughed.

Bruce sounded facetious about the competence of the Henley Police Department, but he wasn't fooling anyone. As a pilot with MAstar—Massachusetts Shock, Trauma, and Air Rescue—Bruce was on good terms with the state's law enforcement agencies. Fran and a select few of those gathered at the party also knew that he was best buds with one of HPD's detectives, Virgil Mitchell.

I overheard snippets of conversation from students speaking into their cell phones. A few were texting. I felt left out.

"I'm walking over there right now," I heard from one student.

"There's a fire truck on campus, too?" from another, apparently being clued in by someone at the library site.

"No way," from a female Jordan.

"Way," from a male Reece.

Daryl, the blue-eyed blonde with an appreciation of Native American crafts, spoke into his phone, then announced to the assembly, "They're taking someone out of the library on a gurney."

Unfortunately the Ben Franklin lounge windows faced away from the campus, so we didn't have a line of sight to the alleged emergency scene outside the Emily Dickinson Library.

Bruce and I fell in with the flow of people streaming toward the front door.

"We're out of here soon, no matter what, right, Sophie?" Bruce asked me.

As much sympathy as I felt for whoever was on the gurney, I hoped nothing would interfere with the getaway in Boston that we'd planned.

"To Boston, the home of the bean and the cod."

"Where the Cabots speak only to Lodges," Bruce responded.

"And the Lodges speak only to God," I finished.

"Ten minutes, tops, and we're on our way," Bruce said, squeezing my hand.

I squeezed back. "What's to keep us here?"