Get a Clue

by Virginia V. Kidd


            Behind his closed office door, Professor William Gruden lay dead, brutally murdered.   Without him, San Luana College business proceeded as usual.   Better than usual, actually, since he was the kind of man one of his colleagues had labeled "Most Likely to Stimulate Irritable Bowel Syndrome."

            That colleague, assistant professor of speech-communication Dr. Sutter St. James, sat at her desk down the hall glowering at a stack of student papers. Two weeks into the semester and she was behind.   When she left the office, papers multiplied like mutated creatures from outer space come to devour the free moments from her life. She gulped a long, desperate swallow of the cafe mocha she had picked up at Java City on her way through downtown Sacramento.

Forceful footsteps advanced down the hall.   She cringed.   People who were cheerful and eager for business the first thing in the morning could be very trying.   The footsteps ceased abruptly, and in her door way loomed department chair Erica Hanneman.   Sutter should have known.   Erica had probably answered all her mail already, worked an hour on her computer, and memorized sections of the San Luana College Mission and Goals statement.  

            "Sutter, have you read that--"   Hanneman gasped.   "My god, what have you done to your office?"

            Sutter followed Hanneman's gaze.   "The original color of these walls was chosen by an interior-design dropout."

            "Sutter, this is a brand new building!   The architects selected subdued hues appropriate for a public institution."

            "I've seen nicer shades of cat litter."

            "I'm not even going to ask if you got Dean Burley's permission."

            "It's Sears Buttercup Yellow.   Isn't it lovely?   Yellow enhances creativity and energy.   I'll admit the room still kind of smells right now--"

            "What's that?"   Erica squinted.   "You've painted a damn opossum on your ceiling!"

            "That's a rain cloud!   A cooling touch for the hideous August heat when I have to teach summer school in order to supplement the pittance of a salary this insti--"

            "I'm not going to deal with this right now."   Erica turned squarely toward Sutter.   "Have you seen that memo from Bill about your advisee, Brady Sanchez?"

             Sutter scowled at a wadded ball on the far edge of her desk.   "You aren't going to pay any attention to it, are you?"    

            "I can't just ignore the input of a full professor who is chair of the Scholarship Committee.   And allow me to point out, by the way, neither can you, since he also chairs the Retention, Tenure, and Promotion Committee.   Like him or not, Bill Gruden has a great deal of power.   That's why his demand is so serious."

Sutter watched Erica cross her arms and lean her shoulder against the door jamb, careful to avoid the yellow wall.   Tall and thin, with straight walnut brown hair that fell forward onto her throat and fluttered in straight bangs above her brown eyes, Erica Hanneman looked the part of the provost she aspired to be.   Still cover-girl attractive though well over forty, she favored tailored clothes, "the power look" she had once said, muted shades in silk and tweed, suits with an expensive flair, with shoes and bags from Italy.  

            Unlike herself.   Sutter glanced down.   Her beautiful shirt suddenly looked as though she was on her way to try out for the role of a plum in a Fruit of the Loom commercial.   She tended to buy whatever took her fancy, usually something brightly colored and soft, creating a rainbow dress mode to which only preschoolers responded warmly.   Well, what did it matter?   Everything was too big.   The fashion world was dominated by tall people.

            She said, "It's Bill Gruden's fault I teach at this depraved hour.   He knew I hate getting up this early when he scheduled me.   I hate it, Erica."

            "That is old news, Sutter.   I have heard it every other morning since the semester began.   You know perfectly well there is nothing I can do about it."              

            "Why does Bill keep teaching?   He inherited half of Texas when his dad died.   Why doesn't he go into seclusion like Howard Hughes?"

            Erica's voice was saccharine.   "Perhaps he hasn't thought of it.   Why don't you suggest it to him."  

              "Controlling people and ruining lives is Bill's hobby.   Look how he was last night at the meeting."

            "He is certainly a difficult man, but you have far more trouble with him than anyone else."   Hanneman waited as though she had asked a question.

            Sutter's only response was, "Erica, quit hovering and sit down."

            Hanneman surveyed the room critically.   "Every chair in this office is stacked with crap."

            "It's too little.   It's really a closet playing 'I Passed for an Office.'"

              "Anyway, I have calls to make and you have a class.   I just wanted to be sure you saw the memo.   If you want to save Brady Sanchez, come and talk to me after your class when you are fully awake and civil."   Erica paused, then adjusted, "Or at least awake."

            As Hanneman marched away, Sutter called after her, "You know very well Brady has done nothing wrong."   Although he could be a little obstinate at times.   And perhaps a tad short tempered.   Not to mention his tendency to refuse to acknowledge authority.   No, not authority--position.   He wouldn't kowtow to a professor just because he was a student.   Well, why should he?   Still, it would be easier all the way around if he would be just a little deferential.  

            She pulled the memo to her and smoothed it out.   The print had sharper focus, she noticed, if she held the whole thing farther away.   Soon she would have to stand up to read student papers on her desk.   This undoubtedly had to do with being in her early forties, and with having been in her early forties for over a decade.   At that thought, she glanced bleakly into the mirror on the side of her file cabinet.   Tiny lines that didn't go away when she stopped laughing had assumed squatters' rights around her eyes, and it was growing increasingly difficult to pass off the silver mixed in with her fading brown-blonde hair as frosting.   

            The memo to Hanneman demanded the immediate termination of any further scholarship benefits to student Brady Sanchez, who had been awarded what San Luana officials euphemistically called a "working scholarship" to care for their building.   The page indicated a copy had been sent to Sanchez and to his advisor, S. St. James.   Would Brady have received his yet?   Not if it was mailed, but probably his copy had been put in his office mailbox cubbyhole, just as hers had been.   Either way he was going to be very stressed.   The only question was whether it was today or tomorrow.  

            Rapid heels clicked down the hall again, a little farther away.   She relaxed when they stopped before reaching her.   A hushed murmuring followed and then a door slammed, fairly close at hand.   Was it always so restive this early in the morning?   If it weren't for William Blaine Gruden scheduling her to teach in the godforsaken time slot that started in fifteen minutes, she would never have had to find out.

            What was driving Bill Gruden's effort to deprive Brady of his scholarship?   Some devious ego trip, no doubt.   She leaned back, propped her feet on papers on the chair across from her, and as she drained the last dregs of coffee through the semi-circle she had gnawed in the thick edge of her paper cup, she slid into her other world, the one she had relied on in times of stress since she was a very young girl.

The manure truck stopped its backward roll toward San Luana College's new Speech-Communication Building and its unadorned flower beds.   The bored driver took only a cursory glance behind him before activating the dumping and failed to note the solitary figure taking a shortcut between the truck and the building wall.   Manure flowed in great rolling cascades directly onto the head of Professor William Gruden.   It slithered inside his collar, surged into his ears, clung to his eyelashes, and, when he uttered an outraged bellow, gushed down his throat.

            Sutter smiled.   Reality could be so limited.

            Alone there in the quiet of her office, she admitted to herself that as much as she gave lip service to impartiality, Brady Sanchez was one of her favorite students.   She never failed to feel a sense of privilege when he dropped by just to chat after his classes were over.   She knew an odd assortment of things about Brady, as she knew about many of her advisees, little pieces dropped here and there out of which she constructed the lives that would too soon walk away from her.   He had surprised her last spring by confessing he wanted to be a police officer, saying it almost wistfully, as though it were a fantasy like becoming a buccaneer or a jungle explorer; she had teased him that his career choice came from watching too much TV.   She knew he missed his family and in his conversation he let her take their place sometimes.   She knew he had to clean the building to get through school, as she had filed library books on the same campus almost a quarter century earlier.

            Only he didn't know that part of her.  

            Students never really knew professors.   They spoke to you as if you had been born an adult with a red pen gripped in your hand, somehow imbued with wisdom and unfailing equanimity.   They never imagined their own professor was one of those hungry first-graders with the shoes from Goodwill and the little half-pencils stolen from the library trash, who trembled when it was time to go home.

            A sound caught her, and she looked up into the intense brown eyes she had just been picturing.     

            "Dr. St. James--something has--has--something--"   His face was chalky despite the bronze tint of his skin; tiny blue veins on his eyelids stood out acutely.  

            Her feet slammed to the floor.   "Brady, don't worry about that memo.   I know about it all, he sent me a copy, but we'll fight it.   We'll--"

            "No, no!   It's not that."   He stood silent, engulfed by an inability to bring thoughts into expression.  

            Sutter grabbed papers from the chair where her feet had rested and slid them onto her desk under her zebra plant.   "Sit down."

He sank thankfully as if the air had gone out of his legs.   "Dr. Gruden's--"   He swallowed.    "He's dead."

            "What?"   She leaned toward him.   "Where did you hear that?"   She searched his eyes, messages without words.

            Brady gestured, a circling hand movement that vaguely indicated another part of the building.   "I went in to clean his office, to empty his trash, you know.   There was blood coming from under him--"

            "Here?"   Her voice rose a notch.   "He's here at San Luana?"  

            Brady nodded, taking a deep breath to continue, but Sutter rose.   "How do you know he's dead? l Maybe he--"

            "Dr. St. James--"   Brady's voice carried a force she had not heard in the classroom.   It stopped her.   "He's dead."

            Sutter stared at him.

            "There's not any question.   I got Dr. Edgerton--he was closest.   He told me to get Dr. Hanneman.   She told me to go sit down somewhere while she called the police and so I--"

            His words limped off into silence, and he sat looking at her. Sutter dropped back into her chair.   Erica, she realized, had wanted to be rid of him while she arranged for the lines of proper authority to assume control.   Instead of waiting quietly in the hall, he had sought comfort.

            "Ralph is there now?   Dr. Edgerton?"

            He nodded.  

            "Bill must have had a heart attack."   What else killed instantly?   A stroke?   A blood clot?   "He must have come in very early this morning, and then--"   How awful to be alone in your office, no one in the building to call for help.   

"No, no, he--there was blood--dried blood--"

            "Like--like--internal hemorrhaging?"

            "Like he'd been murdered."   Panic filled the usually confident face. His eyes fought back pain and anxiety.

            "Oh, Brady, no."   Sutter shook her head.   "People don't--"

            "There was blood, a wound.   There didn't seem to be anything there that--that could have killed him accidentally."

            "How do you know?   Did you touch him?   Did you look to see what killed him?"

            "I had to see if he was alive, if I could help."   It was the voice of a child, pleading innocence in the face of a broken vase.

            "Oh, yes.   Of course you did."   Sutter had an impulse to rest her hand on his arm, outstretched where it lay on his thigh, but she hesitated.   She wished she knew the right way to comfort him.   In the silence she heard the air-conditioner surge on, whistling as if it was trying to learn how, and she could feel its breath on her neck.   All she could think to say was, "I'm so sorry, Brady."   Almost immediately she realized the irony: all her concern was for the student who found the body, none for the victim.

            Well, she wouldn't be alone in that.   To know Bill was to hate him.

            "It'll be all right," she said.  

            "It won't be all right."   Brady shook his head fatalistically.   "It won't be.   The police will think--you got a copy of his letter trying to take away my scholarship, didn't you?   You saw that?"

            She nodded.

            "We had a--a disagreement, a--well, an argument."   He buried his face in his hands.   His voice was muffled.   "A number of arguments."

            "Whatever has happened to Professor Gruden, his memo has nothing to do with his death.   Nothing.   There is no reason it should even come up."   And she needed to be sure Erica knew that too.  

            He continued, "And the police--you have to be one of the right kind of people to deal with police."

            Police patrol cars had favored the part of Sacramento where Sutter grew up.   Most of the kids didn't like them and tensed up just seeing the black-and-whites crawl down the street, but she was always glad to see them.   When the police came to your door, the shouting stopped.  

            "What is this?   I thought you wanted to be a police officer."

            He looked up, his face drawn.   "To change it!   Like it is now, all's they look at is the outside, at who looks right, who has money and education and talks right, who has a new car.   At who comes from an expensive home and wears nice clothes.   Or who doesn't!   At--"   He stopped, then truculently tapped his forearm so near hers.   "At this."  

            Her face must have shown her confusion because he added, "At the color of a person's skin."   

            Her stomach jolted.   In clear focus she saw the freckles across the back of her hand, darker splotches, like his skin sprinkled across hers.  

            "I learned about police when--"   He stopped abruptly.

            She prompted, "When--"

            He took a deep breath and looked up.   "Last summer our truck was stolen.   My truck.   Dad put it in my name.   He wanted to give me something to help with going to college.   All's he could do was this old beat up, broken down--"   He choked, staring down at the floor.   His hands, laced together, were white at the knuckles.

              In the silence Sutter said gently, "Your father must be very proud of you."

            He made an inarticulate sound, fighting to get control of himself.  

            She said, "I hope you're wrong about police, Brady, but even if you're not, you're all those good things now--you're an honor student, we all know you, you look right--"

            "I look Latino."   He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall.  

            Sutter forced her shoulders to relax, and she took a deep breath all the way down into her diaphragm, the way the physiology professor had taught her to do after a particularly trying Arts and Letters Budget and Planning Committee meeting involving Bill Gruden.   She reached for the light touch.   "Think of it this way.   This will help your career.   It's a great chance to observe police work up close.   It's a special service San Luana offers only its best."

            He forced a smile.   "Maybe Lieutenant Dark will come."

             She knew that meant Brady was trying: Sacramento's widely publicized police lieutenant was the subject of on-going banter between them.   "Since that is the first positive thing you have said about the police today, I particularly regret having to tell you that Nathan Dark never comes anywhere there are not a minimum of three television cameras."   Abruptly it occurred to her that the murder of a professor on a small liberal arts campus might well draw three cameras.

            Brady answered, "A diligent detective like Nathan Dark investigates crime wherever it happens."  

             In the silence they heard voices drifting down the hall.   She glanced toward the sounds.   "Shall we?"

            He nodded.   As they stepped out the door, he laid a fleeting hand on her shoulder.   "Thanks," he said gruffly.

              Toward the end of the corridor, Sutter caught a flash of uniform, light brown khaki with a blue stripe down the leg, and the official maroon and blue encircled llama of San Luana College on the shoulder.

            "She didn't!" Sutter exhaled.   "Tell me Erica didn't call the San Luana campus police."