The Square Root of Murder

Chapter One

"Don't spoil my circles!"

Who thought summer school was a good idea? Especially in Massachusetts where the humidity can take your breath away, never mind frizz up your hair.

I loved teaching in one of the oldest buildings on the beautiful campus of Henley College. Today, however, with the temperature hovering around ninety-five degrees, I'd have been willing to give up the magnificent collegiate architecture of Benjamin Franklin Hall for a sleek, modern, air-conditioned building.

But I had only myself to blame for the fact that I was teaching on a wretched Thursday morning in July. I'd persuaded the dean to fund a learning center in Franklin, the building that housed Henley's mathematics and science departments.

I was the go-to person for a program that provided tutoring sessions, online problem sets, videos, and classes in special topics for students at every level of achievement in math. The program, plus a twice-a-week seminar in applied statistics, kept me in a hot, stuffy classroom for many more hours than I liked.

By noon today I'd spent three hours using math games to help incoming freshmen who had declared themselves victims of math anxiety. I waved a sheaf of practice sets in front of my face, creating a warm breeze, and declared the session on graphing calculators over.

Students filed by, picking up a tip sheet for overcoming their fear of math as they left the room, hopefully for cooler realms.

"I just can't do retro," I overheard one young women say to another.

"I totally get it," said her companion.

"Is there an algorithm you don't get?" I asked, unable to resist.

"No, we're talking about clothes, Dr. Knowles," the first woman said.

"I knew that."

Rachel Wheeler, my assistant, stayed behind to walk me out. Rachel was everyone's assistant, in fact, a post-graduate student helping out in all the math and science labs.

"Do you have a minute, Dr. Knowles?" Rachel asked. Her narrow face was somber, her usual animated personality subdued. I hoped it was simply the nasty July heat that gave her a bedraggled look.

"As long as we walk while we talk," I said, eager to leave the stifling, musty building. "We might be able to catch a breeze."

No such luck. We walked in stagnant air down the imposing exterior steps that led from Franklin's clock tower to the lush campus below and headed for the parking lot.

I envied the small group of scantily-clothed students in front of the gym, frolicking in the fountain that surrounded a statue of our esteemed founder. I hoped our humorless dean wasn't looking out the window of her administration building office. The simple caper could generate a long memo from her about decorum taking precedence over the possibility of heat stroke.

"Thanks for setting up the measurements lab for tomorrow," I said to Rachel. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

"I'm thinking of quitting." Rachel's head was down; her eyes seemed focused on her red patent sandals.

I'd heard this threat all summer, and it wasn't about the math labs or converting from inches to centimeters. Rachel's thesis work in chemistry had not been going well.

"Did the metric system finally get to you?" I asked, a weak joke, an attempt at lightening the mood for someone who'd been tutoring metric since her freshman year. I was sorry Rachel was having such a hard time with her key project.

We shuffled past the tennis courts, where the asphalt seemed to be sending up plumes of steam. A few yards later, Rachel stopped in front of the campus coffee shop. Ordinarily the smell of Huey's dark roast would draw us in, but I could tell Rachel needed more than an iced cuppa.

"I mean it this time," she said.

"He's been that bad?"

Anyone in the Henley academic family who was listening would have known we were referring to Dr. Keith Appleton. He was Rachel's thesis adviser and the chemistry teacher known not fondly as Apep, after the Egyptian god of darkness and chaos, the destroyer of dreams.

Rachel's big dream was to do this extra year of study and research at Henley and then enter med school in Boston. She needed Apep's help and recommendation to make it all come true.

"He told me my data is crappy."

"He used that word?"

"No, he'd never use that word, but that's what he meant. He said everything I've done so far is worthless." Rachel bent over double and blew out her breath, as if she'd just finished running the Boston marathon and couldn't take another step.

I reached down and rubbed Rachel's narrow shoulders, helping set her upright at the same time. I thought how young she seemed sometimes, young enough to be my daughter, if I'd taken that path. On hot days like this she tied her long many-shades-of-blond hair into a ponytail, taking another four or five years off her age.

"He can't mean it," I said. "You've been working day and night on those—what are they again?"

"Proteins," Rachel said, coming back to life at the mention of her passion. "I'm purifying proteins. It's just a matter of separating the different types of proteins that exist in a mixture, so—"

"Right." I was at my limit of understanding Rachel's biochemical specialty. In my mind, numbers were already pure, thus eliminating a lot of complicated chemical processes.

"Sorry," Rachel said. "I can get carried away."

"No, no. Someone has to do it." I glanced at the hot, clear sky. "God knows, those proteins need purifying." I got the smile I wanted and pushed ahead to ease Rachel's mind. "Maybe Dr. Appleton was just in one of his moods," I suggested.

"Or maybe I'm not cut out for graduate work, let alone making it through med school."

"Of course you are."

I held back the diatribe that was on the tip of my tongue. Keith Appleton was the only Henley faculty member who didn't command my utmost respect. He seemed to thrive on making his students' lives as difficult as possible, considering it a great achievement when the majority of his class failed his midterm. And he didn't stop at students. His record of supporting faculty rights was dismal.

"Also, I did something stupid."

"Which was?"

"I sent him this email right after he made those comments. I should have waited until I cooled down."

Always a good idea. "What did you say in the email?"

"I kind of told him he shouldn't even be teaching."

Never a good idea. "In those words?"

"Maybe even worse. I can't remember exactly. After I wrote it, I decided not to send it, but I hit send accidentally. I couldn't believe it whooshed off and there was nothing I could do."

"Let's hope it doesn't come across to him as harshly as you meant it."

"Would you talk to him?" Rachel asked as we continued on to the parking lot. "You know, professor to professor. Pretend I didn't tell you anything and try to find out what he really thinks of me and my work." Rachel stopped again and put her hands to her ring-laden ears, a minimum of six silver baubles on each. "No, wait. I don't want to hear it."

I looped my arm in Rachel's, glad to see that she'd kept a sense of humor about her situation. "I'll give it a try, but we're not exactly best friends."

"If Dr. Appleton had any friends at all, you'd be it."

"Ouch. I'm not sure I like that distinction."

"He always says how you're the only one who remembers his birthday."

"That's because it's the same day as Lamarck's, August 1."

"How do you do that? Remember dates? Like for some eighteenth century biologist?"

"For Lamarck and Dr. Appleton, I make the association that both of them developed theories that don't work.

"I like that. Dr. Appleton's theory is that if you torture your students, they'll learn better," Rachel said.

"And Lamarck's is that if you keep frowning, the lines on your forehead will deepen and your kids will inherit deep frown marks."

Rachel gave me a broad smile that smoothed out her forehead. "I get it."

"Much better," I said.

When we arrived at my car, Rachel turned to me. "If you don't feel comfortable talking to him, don't worry. I'll be okay." She gave me a reassuring grin. "If I don't make it to med school, well, doctors don't make the money they used to, anyway."

"And we all know that's what matters most to you."

I gave Rachel a playful nudge, and waved good-bye from the front seat of my smokestone metallic Fusion. Strange name for a color, but today the interior felt like I imagined a smoking stone would. I could barely turn the key in the ignition, very hot to my touch. I cranked the A/C to max.

I couldn't let Rachel down, but I didn't look forward to talking to Keith Appleton either. He was my age, mid-forties, yet he had a way of making me feel unimportant and inexperienced. There was no telling whether my interceding on Rachel's behalf would help or hurt her chances of gaining his approval of her thesis.

My fondest hope was that somehow the situation would resolve itself before I had a chance to contact him.


Fifteen minutes late for my beading class, I tried to sneak in through the back door of A Hill of Beads, the shop owned by my best friend since high school, Ariana Volens. She and I had gone off to different colleges on the west coast and in Boston, respectively, but reunited as soon as we moved back to town.

I breathed in the scent of Tibetan incense—sweet jasmine this time—Ariana's latest favorite for calming the mind. I tiptoed to a seat at the end of a long table where six other women had gathered, but I should have known Ariana wouldn't let me get away with a quiet entrance.

She stopped mid-demonstration and swung her long, graceful arm in my direction. "And, finally, our eminent Dr. Sophie Knowles joins us," Ariana said, a big smile on her face. She knew she'd pay later for this drama.

Ariana's platinum blond hair was streaked with strands of red and blue, her eye-catching, patriotic design of choice for the summer. My hair, on the other hand, won compliments without my even trying. My short dark locks were graying in a design of their own choosing—a jagged stripe of white hair about an inch wide had grown out on one side of my head. I'd learned to simply say thank you when people complimented me on my artistry.

I'd been talked into beading by Ariana.

"You need a hobby," she'd told me a month ago.

"I already have one."

"Making up puzzles and brainteasers doesn't count. It's too much like math," she'd said.

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

Ariana had rolled her eyes.

I agreed to try a hobby, partly to keep Ariana quiet. It came down to beading or handwriting analysis, Ariana's new passion, and the latter seemed a bit too woo-woo for me. I couldn't see myself making judgments about someone's personality based on how she drew a capital S. I, myself, wrote it differently every time, no matter what Ariana claimed.

Beading seemed innocuous and apolitical enough.

I had to admit, Ariana had a point in wanting me to expand my horizons by meeting Henley town folk who weren't part of the college community. With a full load of classes, plus office hours, faculty meetings, and research, sometimes it was hard to get off campus until late in the evening. Bruce Granville, my dark-eyed boyfriend, kept even stranger hours. A former Air Force pilot, now flying a medivac helicopter, he worked seven days on, from nine to nine and then had seven days off. We'd settled into a routine that excluded nearly everyone except my students, a few colleagues, and Ariana.

"Your world is too small," Ariana told me often. On those occasions, invariably, she'd form a circle—a planet, I figured—with her arms. "You need to get out more. And even if you don't fall in love with everyone in the beading class, you'll end up with something useful," she'd added, appealing to my multitasking, goal-oriented personality. She'd held up in turn, a beaded basket, a bead-fringed bookmark, and a ballpoint pen covered with multicolored seed beads. I thought it was a stretch to call them all "useful."

After a couple of classes I found I liked the craft and the crafters more than I'd expected. All the other stresses in my life disappeared when our conversation focused on the best gauge wire to use for each kind of bead. Or when I had to concentrate on picking up tiny beads with a needle and thread and keeping them from rolling off the other end. I was a novice at the hobby, however, and doubted I'd ever be as good at it as I was at making and solving puzzles.

Ariana wasn't finished with me this afternoon. As the six other women, all more advanced beaders than I was, turned in my direction, Ariana asked, "Were you engaged in some high-level mathematics, Professor? Or were you tied up in the backseat of a helicopter with a Colin Farrell lookalike?"

I felt my face turn red, in spite of the comfortably air-conditioned shop. I was consoled by the fact that Bruce wasn't around to hear the innuendo, though he was unlikely to blush the way I had. He'd probably be flattered at being compared to one of his favorite actors. Or was Colin only on my favorites list?

The beader in the seat next to me, an older, graceful Indian woman, patted my hand and said, "She's just trying to make you feel at home, dear."

I smiled at her and my other classmates and gave Ariana a look that said we'd settle this score later.


Today's workshop was not going well for me, in spite of my dipping often into one of the many small bowls of candy on the worktable. Ariana could never go too long without a sweet treat, and chocolate always had a prime spot wherever she held forth.

I let out an aggravated grunt, annoyed at how fumble-fingered I was, trying to attach a short beaded string to a jump ring to make a key chain. When my cell phone vibrated on the table in front of me, I was glad for the break.

Until I saw the caller ID number. Courtney, the young administrative assistant in the academic dean's office.

I was pretty sure I wasn't being notified of a raise in salary or a reduced class schedule, which would allow me more time for research. I was nearly positive that Dean Underwood had another complaint to lodge against me. I wouldn't have been surprised if she was ready to blame me for encouraging the sprites dancing in the water-fountain.

I clicked my phone on and said "Hello" to Courtney, at the same time walking outside into the back alley, where a blast of heat assaulted my face.

"She wants to see you," Courtney said, sounding apologetic.

It wasn't Courtney's fault the dean spent her days thinking of ways to annoy the Henley faculty. Especially me.

I'd forgotten to take my sunglasses from my purse when I exited the shop. I squinted against the intense sunlight and entertained ugly thoughts about Dean Underwood. First Keith Appleton, and now the dean was upsetting my day. Maybe I was the problem. Maybe I should try to earn a living making beaded key chains. Beads didn't talk back or try to cramp my style.

"Is it urgent?" I asked.

"Isn't it always?" Courtney asked.

I sighed, slightly resigned. There was also my puzzle work to fall back on for income, I thought. Ever since I was a college student, I'd been submitting puzzles and brainteasers on a regular basis to games and variety magazines. But while it was fun coming up with number play and logic puzzles, the pay was hardly enough to keep me in the lavish, three-bedroom style I'd become accustomed to.

I realized Courtney was still on the line. "So, she wants to see me today?" I asked.

"Yesterday. I'm sorry, Dr. Knowles," said Courtney, whose temperament did not match her flaming red hair.

"I'll have to change my clothes," I said, glancing down at my flowered crop pants and bright green sandals.

"It's not about your clothes, this time." Courtney paused, as if considering whether to say more. She filled in with a nice offer. "Oh, I have your favorite lemon zinger tea in stock, Dr. Knowles. I'll have a tall, cold glass waiting."

At least I related well with the younger generation. I thought also of my wonderful friends on the Henley faculty and of the richly diverse student body I got to work with every term.

Maybe I wouldn't turn in my Henley College ID card just yet.

Maybe I could get Keith and the dean to turn in theirs.