The Quotient of Murder

Square Root of Murder Image

THE QUOTIENT OF MURDER

A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery

CHAPTER 1

Four seasons aren't enough to please some New Englanders. The administrators of Henley College, in Henley, Massachusetts, gleefully wedged in a fifth this year—our first ever January Intersession. Four weeks of classes, three credits each, and thirty-one days of bracing the winds on an icy-cold campus.

Brilliant.

"You know you love teaching, any time, anywhere, Sophie," more than one of my friends said every time I whined about the extra load.

"Yeah, yeah," I admitted, acknowledging that I couldn't get enough of class prep and student interaction.

But now, two weeks into the so-called term, a pipe somewhere in the nether regions burst, and the heating system went out in Benjamin Franklin Hall, home to the mathematics and science departments. After shivering through my nine o'clock calculus class, I carried my mug of coffee and laptop into the faculty lounge, hoping someone had started water boiling on the hotplate. During my free hour, I could give myself a steam facial and warm up at the same time.

I wasn't the only one with that idea. I set my computer down and joined two other department chairpersons—the tall, heavily mustachioed Ted Morrell, from physics, and the much smaller, strawberry blond Judy Donohue, head of biology—standing at the side table, where the hotplate occupied a prime position. I squeezed between them.

"I can't teach maxima and minima in a freezing classroom," I complained to Ted, the most senior faculty member in Franklin Hall. "What good is having a physicist in the building if you can't fix the plumbing?"

"I'm on it, Sophie." Ted saluted and smiled. He spared me his standard speech about the difference between science and technology. According to Ted, physicists were busy trying to understand the universe; it was the engineers who were responsible for fixing its leaks.

It sounded like a cop-out to me.

No one wanted to argue with Ted, however, since he was our go-to guy for any computer problems in the building. In deference (or not) to his age, we called him our One-Hundred-Year-Old Geek, the techie who could unfreeze your bits and bytes or recover the file you thought you deleted.

Our laptops lined up on the conference table, the three of us engaged in a time-honored New England winter tradition, hovering over the steam from two pots of boiling water, talking and drinking our coffee in a half bent position while the bubbles gurgled away. I hoped someone would join us who needed boiling water for tea so I'd feel less wasteful and environmentally unsound.

This morning we also eyed a pink pastry box next to the hotplate. It was the chemistry department's turn to supply goodies today and a chem major had delivered the box earlier. Ted patted his flat stomach, making a calculation before indulging, then went for a cruller. I followed his lead, promising myself an exercise routine soon, and broke off a small piece of cinnamon twist.

Judy sucked in her stomach, then let out a breath and admitted, "I pass, because I just walked by a hunky, very buff guy in the basement fixing our heater, and I might want to go back and introduce myself."

Ted and I pretended not to get the connection.

To add to the January woes, parking on campus had become a nightmare. Large vehicles and heavy equipment for the renovating and reopening of our carillon facility had taken over the lots on the east and north sides of the Administration Building. Besides the bell tower, the landscaping at the back of Admin was also getting a make-over.

Franklin Hall had its own lot next to the tennis courts at the other end of campus, but the displaced cars had moved in on us. This was as good a time as any to gripe about it.

"Someone was in my spot today," Judy said. "A dirty old blue Citroen." She brushed the front of her spotless wool jacket, as if she'd inadvertently leaned on the scruffy vehicle.

"Probably someone from the French Department," Ted joked, halfway through his cruller. "But where else are they going to park?"

"Anywhere but my spot," Judy said, stomping her feet. For circulation or for emphasis? Probably both. "They could at least remove some of that equipment that they're through with. I'll bet they're never going to use that backhoe again."

"It's all for a good cause," I offered, and hummed a few notes of the Westminster Chimes. Thanks to a generous donation from a group of alumnae, Henley College's Music Department would once again have a full program of carillon studies and regular concerts.

"Listen to Ms. Arrives-at-Dawn Knowles," Ted said, flicking a crumb of powdered sugar from his mustache. "You still have your spot."

"That would be Dr. Arrives-At-Dawn Knowles," I teased. "But you have a point."

Usual construction delays and a late December snow had slowed the carillon project, but the remaining work was fairly weatherproof and we were promised a concert in the spring.

In spite of the inconvenience of the parking situation, most faculty and students were thrilled about the restoration and upgrading of our carillon. Comprising fifty-three (formerly forty-eight) bells, the instrument was housed in a tower attached to the sprawling, English Gothic Administration Building. It was hard to believe that the present construction zone, with ugly equipment, scaffolding, and black and yellow caution tape, would soon give way to beautiful music from the tower.

Judy shook the box of pastry for a better view of the bottom layer, then succumbed to a piece of Danish that had broken loose. "I know, tsk, tsk," she said, as if someone had reprimanded her. "You're being so good, Sophie."

"Uh-huh." I didn't share my reasons for holding back—there were more goodies in my immediate future, and I wanted to save my appetite. I planned to share cake with my class after my eleven o'clock seminar, then enjoy lunch with my boyfriend, search-and-rescue hero Bruce Granville. Medevac pilots didn't often get a regular lunch hour, so I'd jumped at the chance to meet Bruce downtown.

"We don't have our parking lot back, but at least the excruciatingly dull special faculty meetings are over," Judy said.

I nodded, recalling endless hours of meetings to decide details that should have taken five minutes each. Should we charge admission to climb the tower for a tour? (No.) For attendance at a carillon concert? (No.) Should the players be called carillonists or carillonneurs? (The former.) Whose names should be inscribed on the new bells to be installed? (Big donors, of course.) Which shade of gray should we use for the walls, "sea salt" or "samovar silver?" (Who even remembers the final decision?)

"Notice, no one in administration ever mentioned the reason the carillon program was cancelled to begin with," Judy said.

"Knock, knock, Doctors?"

Our longtime, diffident janitor, Woody, stood at the door, his smile broader than usual. He knew we'd be pleased to see the load he was ready to pull into the room—a gray metal cart with two shelves full of small space heaters.

Three variations of enthusiastic thanks, plus a round of applause caused a light flush to appear over Woody's face. We invited him to share the wealth of sugar in the pink box.

Woody scooped up a jelly donut and placed it to the side on a napkin. "For after I set these up," he said, pointing to his cart. "Thank you, Doctors," he added.

"Thank you, Mr. Conroy," Judy said, but I was unsure whether he'd recognized her tease. We'd long ago stopped trying to coax him into using our first names.

Five minutes later, life-giving warmth radiated from the coils of a heater at the back of the room.

We moved from the hotplate and arranged chairs around the heater, while Woody cleared the way for a second unit at the front of the room.

Judy's earlier comment came back to me. "What do you mean 'the real reason' for closing the tower?" I asked her. "I thought it was sealed off because of some building code violation and we didn't have the money for retrofitting."

Judy pointed to our colleague from physics. "Ted would know better, but what I heard was that twenty-five years ago, toward the end of the spring semester, a student jumped from the tower. A sophomore French major, right, Ted?"

Ted nodded, frowning, closing his eyes.

I drew in my breath. "A student jumped from our tower? That's why the tower was sealed off?"

I looked at Ted for more information. He'd been at Henley forever, an icon in horn-rimmed spectacles. I'd lost track of how long ago we'd celebrated his thirtieth anniversary. But Ted wasn't in a sharing mood today. He opened his laptop, finished with the tower conversation.

Even with the new source of heat in the room, I felt a chill. Maybe because of the horrible image now in my head. A girl falling from the tower, hitting concrete, breaking bones, bleeding . . .

I thought back. I'd been born and raised in Henley, but twenty-five years ago, I was a college student on the west coast. Had I been so self-centered that I wouldn't have paid attention to such dramatic news in my hometown? Granted, it was three thousand miles and more than half my lifetime ago, and it made sense that my mother wouldn't have wanted me to focus on it. Still . . .

I finally caught my breath. "How come you knew this and I didn't?" I asked Judy.

Though Judy was five years my junior, we'd joined the faculty the same semester, fifteen years ago. She'd arrived straight out of grad school, skipping the phase I'd been through, where you try gainful employment in industry before giving in to your first love, teaching.

"I heard bits and pieces my first year here. I haven't thought about it in a long time," Judy said.

"They quit having all those live music concerts and we put in that electric system. Nobody was supposed to talk about it," Woody said, packing up his toolbox.

"A very good idea," Ted offered, without lifting his eyes from his keyboard.

"Yes, sir, Doctor," Woody said, taking Ted's message to heart, and, I guessed, wishing he'd never contributed to the conversation.

"The real answer to your question, Sophie, is that everyone knows you're no fun when it comes to keeping gossip alive. That's why no one brought it up with you."

I didn't know whether to say "Sorry" or "Thanks."

Ted gave Judy a disapproving look, and she quickly explained. "I didn't mean that this was gossip. It must have been an unimaginable tragedy for her family, of course. For everyone at Henley."

Judy had a way of being flip that annoyed Ted, the straightest arrow in the building, at least once a day in my experience, but we both knew she never meant disrespect.

The natural questions were swimming around in my head. Who was the girl? Why did she jump? How did her family handle it?

I didn't have to ask. Judy tuned into my vibes. "The girl was from an influential family in Boston." She snapped her fingers, remembering. "Her father was a high profile lawyer, if I recall correctly, and headed to Washington. The first rumors were that she was depressed over a boyfriend who'd just dumped her. But they never did verify that she was depressed or that there even was a boyfriend."

"Maybe she was flunking her classes?" I offered, knowing how high the stakes were for some students.

Ted cleared his throat. "No one really knows why anyone does anything," he said, in a sweeping pronouncement. "What does it matter, anyway?"

"I just found it strange that so many rumors persisted, even after the suicide ruling," Judy said.

"You think the boyfriend was a cover story?" I asked. "There was another reason she jumped from the tower?"

Judy shrugged. "Anything is possible. There could have been more to it. Something embarrassing to the family. I'm pretty sure the girl's father was running for office. Sometimes that alone is enough to doubt what you see in the press. The girl—"

"Kirsten Packard," Ted interrupted. "The girl was Kirsten Packard, and her father was in the state's attorney general's office, running for election as US attorney, which he won. He served his country in that capacity, and died a few years ago."

There was a finality to Ted's tone. He might as well have said, "Zip it," or, more suited to him, "Now can we please drop this topic?" But Judy, who never met a rumor she didn't like, wasn't finished.

"I even heard that someone might have been up there with Kirsten," Judy said. "In the tower. And that's why the Packard family wasn't eager to have an investigation."

As much as I sympathized with Ted, I couldn't resist. Trying to establish a reputation to match Judy's? I hoped not. "So she might have been pushed by this other person?" I asked.

Judy raised her eyebrows and gave me a slight smile, as if to commend me for guessing what she had in mind.

We both turned to look more closely at Ted, Woody having slipped out by now.

"You were on the faculty back then, Ted. What do you think?" Judy asked.

"No comment," he said, and continued to work at his keyboard. He acted as uncomfortable as if he himself had been in the tower with Kirsten that day. But the look was more that of sad father than of a witness to murder.

"I don't get it," I said. "Why would a parent not want an investigation if they suspected their daughter was murdered?"

"Politicians, you know," Judy suggested, shrugging. "It's all about image. A murder investigation digs up all kinds of things besides a murderer. Family secrets and skeletons. Maybe the girl . . . Kirsten . . . was into something that got her killed. Suicide is neater. Well, not neat, but you know what I mean."

"Right," I said, as if either of us was an expert in the matter. "One more question, Ted. Did you know Kirsten personally?" I asked.

He took a deep breath and gave a slight, slow nod. "I didn't have her as a student. She majored in romance languages, I think. But her roommate was a physics major so I'd met Kirsten once or twice."

Ted stood and walked to where the coffee urn and the hotplate kettles were both going strong. He refilled his mug with our less-than-gourmet coffee, carried it back to his seat, and bent over his keyboard again.

I was curious to know why Ted didn't leave the lounge and the conversation that seemed so distasteful to him. Maybe he wanted to keep tabs on the wild imaginings of his colleagues. Was he protecting the victim for some reason? Though he claimed not to know her, he certainly would care about the image of the college where he'd spent the better part of his adult life. Or maybe he simply couldn't face the even colder office wing of the building.

"Let's lighten this up a bit, shall we," Judy said, surprising me. "Give us a puzzle or a math riddle, Sophie."

I snapped to it. "Of course," I said, and scanned my mental list for a puzzle I hadn't already told them. The first riddle that came to me was a cute entry that I'd seen in the kids' section of one of the magazines I submitted puzzles and brainteasers to.

"How many eggs can you put in an empty basket with a six-inch square bottom, three inches high?" I asked.

Judy made a pshaw sound. "You're off your game, Sophie. The answer is, only one. After that the basket's not empty. And those dimensions are to throw me off. Like a red herring in a mystery."

Judy was right all around. Not just about the number of eggs and the clever distraction, but about the fact that I was off my game. My heart wasn't in it. It was heavy with the thought of a student in distress.

Unless the corollary legend was true and someone had pushed Kirsten out the tower window. Another horrible scenario.

Ted clicked away, neglecting to offer his usual challenge to me with his own joke. An electron walks into a bar . . . Judy's laptop bonged awake. The coffee klatch had come to an end.

~~~~

In my office, I sent a quick text to Bruce confirming our lunch date and gathered my class materials. At the last minute, I picked up my down jacket, in case Woody hadn't yet set up a heater in the classroom.

I heard a noise behind me and turned to find Judy in my doorway.

I invited her in, but she declined. "I know you're on your way to class, but I had a thought."

I cupped my ear. "I'm listening."

"Fran would have been here at that time. Twenty-five years ago."

Not a thought. More of a fact. Fran Emerson, my colleague in the Mathematics Department, had been at Henley at least as long as Ted. She was off this semester, teaching in Rwanda on a Fulbright.

It took a minute, but I got it. "You want me to call Fran in Africa and ask about a twenty-five-year-old event?"

"Would you?"

"That's a crazy idea."

"Just a thought," Judy said, as she turned and walked away.

"Crazy," I called after her.

"Curious," she said, her voice echoing after her. "Scientists are curious."

"Yes, but biologists are crazy."

~~~~

I walked down the hall to my classroom, Kirsten Packard's death still weighing on me, almost as if she'd been my own student.

Most faculty members who'd been around awhile and were even the least bit approachable had at one time or another counseled a student who was on the edge. I certainly had. It was a sobering, frightening experience. Though Kirsten's death had occurred a long time ago, it pained me to acknowledge that one of us had failed to save a young life.

I hoped my current students were all in a happy state, glad to be alive.

And that no one was out to get them.

I stood in the doorway before entering the room and pulled out my smartphone. I clicked on the world clock.

Almost eleven o'clock in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nearing five o'clock in the evening in Rwanda. Not that I needed to know.

Curious, crazy mathematicians.