To Murder and Create
Copyright© 2009 by Peter H. Salus
I'm not sure just why discovering a corpse should ruin one's sleep, especially when the corpse isn't anyone you know -- or used to know. Just as being called Richard seems to have impaired the life of Catherine Morland's father. There I go. Literary allusions. That's the trouble with remembering what you read, you throw it into the strangest situations. Just the ones that Horace tells you to keep a level head in.
When I got up yesterday, I was girding myself for a normal, harassing day. By ten, everything had changed. Let me see if I can make more sense by backtracking.
My name is Burton Diver. I'm a professor of Scandinavian Literature at the University of Toronto. Together with my wife and daughter I'm spending a year in San Diego, California, on a sabbatical. We came here because we thought the weather would be better than it is in Toronto. (It is.) All my thousands of colleagues at UofT envy me. At least I fantasize that they do. I'm some sort of visiting important person at both the University of California in La Jolla, at the north-west edge of San Diego, and at San Diego State, toward the eastern, desert edge of the city. This means that most days I go to one or the other, play with books or journals in the library, and have lunch with my friends. I go to the beach in La Jolla a lot. I think I'm writing a book (maybe it's a long article) about Jens Peter Jacobsen, a Danish author of the 19th century. I must be doing something, because I'm accumulating a waxing collection of notes. But summer's past and we're into early autumn, and all I've got are those notes and a few book reviews.
Mid-October found me agreeing to act as "external appraiser" for a program in comparative literature.
So, that's why I was on my way to a meeting in Love Annex -- an appendage of the Malcolm Love Library at SDSU -- that day. I had spent most of last year avoiding meetings I was supposed to be at (at the place that paid my salary) so it made some sort of sense to be going to meetings at a university where I had no active interest.
I got to the room the meeting was supposed to be in (according to a note I'd scrawled on the back of an old airmail envelope), and paused. The clock in the hall indicated that it was five to ten. Five minutes before the designated time and most likely at least ten before anyone would show up. I watched an incredibly dirty and hairy girl try to bum a cigarette from a guy sitting on the floor and realized that the scenery would be no worse inside the room. So I opened the door.
About six tables had been pushed together to produce a working surface in the vague middle of the room. As is standard, each table was 1/4" to 1/2" higher or lower than the adjacent ones; so there was no level surface, anyway. Chairs stood around and in the corners of the room. The chair at the head (or the foot) of the table was occupied by a man in a suit, his chin on his fist, looking down at some papers. He didn't look up when I closed the door. I walked towards him, but stopped. There was something sticking out of his back, a small stain on his grey suit jacket, and I'd read too many murder mysteries.
I reopened the door, went out into the hall, took a deep breath (the guy was still sitting on the floor at the end of the hall, the female was gone), and walked into an office three doors down, past the elevator. The pretty secretary was willing to relinquish the phone to me.
I asked her for the number of the Kampus Kops (I said "campus security," I think), got it, dialed it, and told the woman who answered that there had been an accident and gave her the room number. I walked back, noticing that the clock now said 10:01 and that none of my colleagues had yet appeared for the meeting. I stationed myself in front of the door.
At 10:05 the elevator doors opened and a nice-looking guy about 40 in a uniform got out. Walking over he asked: "Did you call about an accident?"
I nodded and opened the door. He walked in ahead of me.
"Shit! Is he dead?"
"I think so. I didn't touch him." I felt chilly and clammy.
"Did you call the regular cops?" He slid his hand between the victim's jacket and shirt, the touched the back of his hand to a cheek.
"He's dead. But not for long. I'd guess under an hour. The cops will have the official say."
I looked around, still queasy. "I guess there won't be a meeting."
He laughed. He was as nervous as I was. "Did you touch anything?"
"Just the doorknob." I looked at him; he looked at me. For the first time I noticed he had a radio, a walkie-talkie, whatever they're called. He called in.
"Ed? Joe here. That accident in Love Annex."
"Well, waddizit?" I could hear Ed's crackly voice.
"There's a dead guy. Looks like he was stabbed."
"That ain't no accident."
"No. I guess not. Will you call the guys at the precinct?"
"Sure. Stay cool."
"There's supposed to be some sort of a meeting here. Send someone to give me a hand. Okay?"
"Sure. The only other thing is a fender-bender in one of the lots. Talk to ya."
And that's the way it started.
I guess it wasn't my fault. But I'd never discovered a body before. The next hour or so I spent with the cops and the reporters. I never did get to the committee meeting -- if it was held.
Ten or fifteen minutes after Joe called in, two uniformed cops arrived; about ten minutes later an elevatorful of officials in suits carrying suitcases debouched. Cameras. Lights. Fingerprint powder. All the paraphernalia of thrillers emerged from the cases. The two uniformed cops disappeared, replaced by some guys in sports coats, one of whom (in a bright yellow shirt) seemed to take over. Every so often someone would drift over, ask me a question (the same question: "did you touch anything?"), and revert to the group. My response remained, "No, just the doorknob."
After a while, someone moved the body. His wallet was in his inside pocket, so they found his name (C.W. Gillespie), which sounded familiar; but I didn't recognize his face, which looked mildly surprised. Finally, the guy in the yellow shirt, having made certain that they had my name, address, telephone number, and (after admiring my Ontario driver's license -- one cop said he thought Ontario was in California) told me that I could go, that I "obviously knew nothing." I told him that I had known that I knew nothing and left. The clock now said 11:38. If there had been a meeting, I'd most likely still be there. I guess my morning had been more interesting than the meeting would have been.
Leaving the room, I discovered what the campus police and the two uniformed cops had been doing: they were trying to keep about a million curious undergraduates, secretaries, cleaners, graduate assistants, and idle faculty at bay. As I appeared, they all sighed and two black guys with a video camera asked me what I thought about the whole thing. Everyone in the hall seemed to get quiet: here it was, the real thing; the man who would reveal it all. I remarked that I thought that the police were conducting an investigation and that they hadn't shared any conclusions with me.
"What's your relationship to all this?"
"I'm the unfortunate who discovered the body."
"Do you think the killing had anything to do with the University's policies?"
"I don't know what the University's policies are."
"Could it have been a dissatisfied student?"
"It could have been anyone. It could have been you. I don't even know what the body did." (My syntax was going to hell.)
I'd always wondered about the Giant Rat of Sumatra and about Wilson the Canary Trainer. But I was no more ready for them than was the rest of the world. My sleuth had retired to his Sussex apiary without complaint from me. But I'd read my share of mysteries. Somehow, things just didn't work out right. The guys I'd seen today didn't resemble Inspector Cramer, nor Appleby, nor West, nor the Californian Mendoza. Somewhere between the station house and the publishing house, things had gone awry.
The TV crew turned off their machine and took down my name and released me to the mercies of an undergraduate posing as a reporter for the San Diego Union. After a while, he released me, too, and I walked over to College Avenue and the bus stop.
On the bus west and then north I continued musing.
Something out of the ordinary happens and you can't tell the players without a scorecard any more. Maybe you can't ever tell. The uniforms and the rules change. Certainly something vital to the recognition system changes.
When I was an undergrad, when I was in grad school, too, you could always tell faculty members. They dressed in grey or shiny blue or brownish suits and wore white shirts and ties. An occasional zany wore a Harris-tweed coat that had leather patches on its elbows. He'd been in England. Sometimes a teaching assistant would appear sans tie, but wearing a crew neck sweater. This demonstrated that he was a left-wing good guy. Females on the faculty wore sensible suits or sensible dresses with sensible shoes.
Most of the jackets and ties disappeared in the early sixties. Hem lines ascended. In warm weather, shoes disappeared, too. Younger members of staff were indistinguishable from students. Someone had switched uniforms on me. I needed a new scorecard.
Recently, things changed again. Now students dress better than the staff. Scruffy faculty, dapper students. And no one even sells scorecards.
I got off the bus at Turquoise and walked to our furnished rent-a-hovel. There was no one home. I poured vodka over two ice cubes, sat down in the living room, and drank it like water.
Notes to Chapter 1.
Catherine Morland's father. See Chapter 1 of Austen's Northanger Abbey.
Horace: leading Roman lyric poet. aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem; Odes book II, poem iii. Remember to keep a level head in difficult situations.
Giant Rat of Sumatra. One of the Holmes adventures that remained unwritten, mentioned in "The Sussex Vampire". Wilson the canary trainer is another (from "The Adventure of Black Peter"). Conan Doyle tells us that Holmes retired to raise bees in Sussex (in "His Last Bow").
Cramer, Appleby, West, Mendoza. fictional detectives of Rex Stout, Michael Innes, John Creasey, and Dell Shannon, respectively.