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Authors: Aaron Stander

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Medieval Murders

BOOK: Medieval Murders
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MEDIEVAL MURDERS

Medieval Murders
is a prequel to the Ray Elkins mystery series.
If you are a reader of the series, you know that the first four books are set in Cedar County, an amalgam of the many lakes, forests, and towns found in northwest lower Michigan. In these books there are references to Ray’s earlier professional life, when he taught criminal justice at a large Midwestern state university. The plot in
Medieval Murders
revolves around the deaths of three members of the English department. It’s a younger Ray Elkins, more hair, fewer pounds, but still very grounded.

Other Books in the Ray Elkins Series:

Summer People

Color Tour

Deer Season

Shelf Ice

For Beachwalker,

who helps this all happen.

© 2011 by Aaron Stander

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Publisher’s Cataloging in Publication Data

Stander, Aaron.

Medieval Murders / Aaron Stander. – Interlochen, Mich.: Writers & Editors, 2011.

ISBN-13: 978-1463670986

1. Murder–Michigan–Fiction. 2. Murder–Investigation–Fiction.

Printed and bound in the United States of America

Cover and interior design by heatherleeshaw.blogspot.com

Cover photograph Mark Smith

1

Shortly after 8:00 A.M. on the last Monday in August, Alice Widdowson, secretary to the chair of the English department, arranged the handouts for the first and longest faculty meeting of the academic year. She had tables set up on each side of the central entrance to the auditorium in Old West Foundation Hall, the building occupied by the department. On the right, in alphabetical order, were folders for the regular faculty; the ones for the adjuncts were on the left. Widdowson—trim, mid-fifties, with a military bearing and an aura of authority, reading glasses on thin gold chains hanging against a carefully pressed white blouse—acknowledged each arriving faculty member in a manner appropriate to their rank and station.

The department early birds picked up their materials, greeted colleagues, and after finding seats, looked through the bundle of Xerox copies, each topic identified by paper color. The majority came in a few minutes before nine, reached over one another to get their packets, and stood around talking until Widdowson, using both arms in a shooing motion, herded them into the lecture hall. Some settled into seats, others wandered around the room, shaking hands and chatting. The stragglers—three tenured faculty members, all male, sauntered in shortly after nine. By that time Widdowson had moved all the materials to the right hand table. In each case she peered at her watch as she handed the latecomer their materials. Finally, when only one folder remained, Widdowson got up and closed the doors to the auditorium.

At five minutes after the hour, Professor Clifford Chesterton, the department chair, in an impeccably tailored three-piece blue suit, entered the auditorium from a side door and mounted the lectern. He switched on the light and carefully arranged his notes. The glare reflected off the typed pages onto his gold-rimmed glasses. Several shushes finally brought the audience’s attention.

In a ministerial chant worthy of a High-Church Anglican—sans incense and bells—Chesterton launched into his opening remarks. He reviewed how enrollment patterns were affecting curriculum, credit hour production, staffing, and tenure considerations. Between each major point he paused dramatically and looked at his audience, a spotlight clearly illuminating his large face and meticulously coifed steel-gray hair. It wasn’t so much what Chesterton was saying that caused the anxiety for many in the audience, it was the subtext of his remarks, an underlying theme that shaped careers, tenure, and the personal and professional lives of many in the room. He didn’t have to say 21 sections of Women’s Literature and nine sections of African-American Literature and five of Hispanic Literature made it this term, but only three sections of Shakespeare. Everyone knew the numbers. And he didn’t have to tell the congregation that the only section of Milton was canceled because of low enrollment. They knew the trends. They’d been logging into the system and watching enrollment in the department.

Chesterton was the man in the middle. The new university chancellor and the cadre of corporate managers he surrounded himself with were demanding that the academic departments become “customer oriented” and “user sensitive” and that class schedules and course offerings be constructed in response to “market forces” and “consumer demands.” Increasingly, the department’s funding was based on body count, the total credit hours produced. He did his best to protect his colleagues and the integrity of the department and the discipline, hoping that this current administrative fad, like all others he had witnessed over the years, would pass without doing too much damage.

The last topic Chesterton broached, the only one that aroused the interest of the somnolent audience, was a detailed analysis of the tenure prospects of department members. He reviewed funding trends in the university and explained how those were tied to enrollment patterns. He quoted members of the academic episcopacy—deans, provosts, vice-chancellors, and the chancellor—on the university’s financial condition. There was little good news, especially for the untenured.

As was the custom at the opening faculty meeting of the school year, Chesterton introduced the newest members of the department, six women and one man, all fresh from graduate school with newly minted Ph.Ds.

Then the Directors of Undergraduate Studies and Graduate Studies, two men almost Chesterton’s age, each provided commentaries on the current enrollment numbers, the data appearing on a screen behind them in PowerPoint charts and graphs. Finally, Alice Widdowson cautioned the faculty to be parsimonious in their use of office supplies, especially when it came to the Xerox machine.

A few minutes before the hour, Chesterton closed the meeting, his arms raised in a benediction-like gesture, with a reminder that he and his wife would be hosting the annual fall cocktail party on Saturday evening at their home.

The carillon was just striking ten as members of the department flooded onto the sidewalk in front of Old West. When questioned after the event, a few thought they saw something fall. Many heard the dull thud as an object crashed onto the large rectangle of gray granite pavers that surrounded the base of the carillon. All remembered the horror they felt when they realized what the object was.

An academic robe, luxurious folds of heavy black silk and rich blue velvet, covered the bird-like figure. A soft velvet hat with gold braid lay next to the crushed skull. Small streams of blood drained from the mouth and nose, forming a pool around the tassel.

Alice Widdowson took command. She ordered everyone away from the body and directed someone to call the University Police. Some members of the department rushed away, appalled by the ghastly scene. Others moved in to get a better view. Only Chesterton approached the body, kneeling at the side for a long moment, extending a hand as if to palpate the neck for a pulse, then pulling it back without touching the crumpled form. Rising slowly, he carefully surveyed the scene, and then walked away, the silent crowd separating, allowing him to pass through.

Widdowson stood guard until the first officers arrived and cordoned off the perimeter of the carillon. Then she went back into Old West and made a fresh pot of Earl Grey tea.

2

W
hen the clock radio, tuned to the university station, had switched on shortly before 6:00 A.M., Ray Elkins was finally in a deep sleep. For several minutes he had been able to merge the Vivaldi into his dream, but when the announcer started to read the news, he groped for the switch. He slid back into a troubled sleep for a few minutes, and then willed himself awake.

It had been a long night. Exhausted, he had dropped into bed shortly before eleven and immediately slipped into a dreamless slumber, but within two hours the old demons were working upon him. He followed his usual pattern, wandering through the dark house, using the toilet, drinking some water, returning to bed, and drifting off again. He had repeated this pattern several more times.

Elkins had always been a light sleeper, at least in his adult years. But this new pattern, this napping between nocturnal wanderings, had started in the course of his long-term companion’s illness and had continued on since her death, more than a year before.

During Ellen’s last months he would wake, listen to her breathing, and wonder about the future. His despair had started long before she was gone.

His inability to sleep was one of the problems discussed by his death and grieving group at the medical center. The group leader, a psychiatrist, said “sleeplessness and sleep interruptions were common after a loss, and these problems lasted for months, and sometimes for years.”

Elkins climbed out of bed and pulled the sheets and then the blankets in place, straightening the pillows. After showering and shaving, he went to the closet to get his clothes.

The two halves of the walk-in closet were a mirror image of each other, the same hanging space, the same arrangement of shelves, drawers, and cubicles. One side was empty. The other was crowded and in disarray, but Elkins had never been able to cross the line, to overflow into what had been her space.

Ellen’s mother and sister had stayed on a few days after the funeral to help dispose of her things and put the house in order. Elkins, while wanting to be helpful had avoided the process, spending most of his time at the office, making unsuccessful attempts to lose himself in work. When he returned home in the evening, he was impressed with how much the two women had accomplished. They had organized her clothing: sorting, washing, and folding. Usable clothing had been delivered to a local women’s shelter. The rest, placed in plastic trash bags, formed a neat row along one side of the garage.

He knew that they were also grieving, but they channeled their energy to do what needed to be done, and their efforts, while not relieving the sorrow, gave them a sense of purpose. He wondered about the differences between men and women, speculating that women might be better able to cope with the big things, things like birth and death. But then he questioned if this was only his inability to accept Ellen’s death, a fact that had nothing to do with gender differences.

Well before 8:00 A.M. Elkins was working at his desk. His tenure as acting director of the university police would be ending in five days, and he was determined to have all the current paperwork completed before Friday.

He had been pressured by Chancellor Pearson to leave his post as chair of the criminal justice program and fill this interim position with the university police. Pearson had assured him that it was a short-term assignment. Elkins was to restore discipline and reestablish administrative control over the scandal-ridden department while the university conducted a national search for a new chief administrator. The assignment provided a new focus in his life, and he was able to get rid of much of his gloominess by burying himself in work. But as September approached, he was glad that the end was in sight and he would soon be able to return to a more academic view of law enforcement.

He had close to two hours of paper work completed when the phone interrupted him.

“Sir, Johnson in Dispatch. We’ve just had a report on a probable suicide. Thought you’d want to know. Someone has apparently jumped from the carillon. Lieutenant Pascoe is on her way, and I’ve notified EMS and called the coroner.”

“The carillon? How did someone get in there?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I have no other information.”

“Thank you. I’m on the way.”

Elkins grabbed his sport coat off the hook and went down the back staircase to the rear exit of the University Police Center, a substantial two-story brick structure erected in a drab 30s style at what had once been the far edge of the campus. For several decades it served as the university’s College of Agriculture before they moved to a new satellite campus several miles south of town.

The director’s car, a bulbous black Crown Victoria, the vehicle favored by police departments and the retired, was baking in its designated place a few feet from the back entrance. As he opened the door, he was hit by a wave of hot, stagnant air. Windows open and air-conditioning on full, he drove toward central campus.

The destination was less than a mile, but his progress was slowed by the heavy traffic. The streets surrounding campus, adjacent to the dorms, Greek houses, and apartments were jammed with the vehicles of returning students. As he waited for the congestion to clear, he observed the carnival-like atmosphere as the college kids, some with parents, unloaded cars, vans, and small trucks.

There was so much vitality in the scene, the excitement of a new year, and the promise of new challenges, future careers, friendships and romances. As Ray watched he thought that death is not common in the valley of the young, not common because youth is usually free from the ravages of disease that accumulate with age. And yet they’re not immune; binge drinking, accidents, suicides, and drug overdoses could take a tragic toll.

Elkins drove around the barriers to the service road that ran to the rear of the carillon and parked at the end of a line of emergency vehicles. He walked toward the circle of police and EMTs.

Charlene Pascoe, Head of Investigations, met him half-way and walked with him toward the carillon. The gray granite obelisk stood at the center of a small block, surrounded by sidewalks in an “X” configuration from each corner. Triangular lawns, some with extensive flower-beds, filled the spaces between the pavement. The east side of the carillon faced the west perimeter of central campus, some of the buildings dating back to the origins of the school. The university’s auditorium, named after a railroad tycoon who gifted much of his fortune to the school, stood on the west side. On the north was the School of Graduate Studies, a mixture of classical and gothic styles, constructed in the 1920s. And on the south, the School of Architecture, a 50s-modern design, in thin tan brick and aluminum, the masonry now bearing dark stains from the metal oxide.

A decade before Charlene Pascoe had been one of Elkins’s most promising undergraduates, and a few years later she had returned to campus to get an M.S. in Public Administration. She was the first of three division heads he recruited as he rebuilt the department’s command structure. Char had been working in one of Chicago’s affluent north shore communities. There she had been quickly promoted from day-to-day police work to liaison officer, a position where an articulate, bright young woman helped the department’s image on a variety of fronts. At first she had been flattered by her rapid advancement, but events quickly forced her to confront her own naiveté. Her feelings about her position, combined with the ending of a relationship, made Elkins’s job offer, although it was less remunerative, especially appealing.

“What do we have?” Elkins asked, brushing up against her shoulder.

“The victim jumped or fell from the carillon,” she said, lifting the yellow plastic ribbon for him to duck under.

When they got to the body, Elkins dropped to his knees and gently pulled back the blanket. A shudder ran through his frame as he confronted the contorted body and smell of death. He pulled the blanket over the corpse.

“Not pretty,” said Char.

“Did you ever work homicide in...?” he asked after a long moment.

“Only at the edges. Never a permanent assignment.”

He stood and looked at her. “Get pictures, measurements, and check for any other physical evidence. I’d like a diagram of the scene. Have you checked the carillon?”

“Door’s locked, and it’s an off-master key. Maintenance is bringing one.”

Elkins looked at the side of the carillon, moving away from the tall stone structure to get a better perspective.

“Had to fall from there,” Pascoe pointed to a small window near the top of the tower.

“Any idea of….”

“That woman, the one in the green, Widdowson’s her name, she says the victim is Sheila Bensen, an English prof.

“Witnesses?”

“Yes and no,” said Char. “The English department’s meeting had just ended, and they were leaving West Foundation. Several say they saw something fall or heard the impact.” She handed Elkins an open note-pad. “I’ve got their names and addresses. None of them saw her climb out of the window. They just saw movement.”

“Anyone see her enter the building?”

“We haven’t found anyone who....”

“Did someone see her this morning, before the meeting?”

“No one I talked to.”

“Find out where she lives, who saw her last. Just good spade work. Here’s our guy with the key.” He motioned in the direction of a man being allowed to duck under the yellow plastic tape. “Hi, John,” said Elkins.

“Oh, my God,” the man said as he looked toward the blanket.

Elkins gently grabbed him at the elbow and moved him toward the door. “What’s the deal with this lock? General master won’t open it.”

“It’s one of the oldest on campus. They’re supposed to work with the new master, but this one’s cranky. I imagine you’ll be needing this key for awhile.”

Elkins nodded.

“Keep it as long as you want.”

“John, how many people have a key for this building?”

“I can’t say for sure. Professor Pennington has some. He keeps losing them. He gives them to students, and he doesn’t get them all back. When the maintenance guys need access to the building, they usually come for one when their masters don’t work. Most times they return them, but not always.”

“And the general master doesn’t work.”

“Some do, some don’t. It’s the person as much as the key, you get what I’m saying. Too much in a hurry. They don’t feel the mechanics of the thing, just jam it in and expect it to open.” He slid the key into the lock, jiggled it, turned it counterclockwise, and pushed open the door. He withdrew the key and handed it to Elkins. “Send it back when you’re done.” They stood and watched John hurry away.

“Well, now we know how secure things are,” said Pascoe . They entered and stood in the cool interior, allowing their eyes to adjust to the dim light.

Then Elkins found the light switch. “Ever been in here before?”

“Once, years ago, during freshman orientation.”

A worn oriental rug covered much of the interior floor. Dull blue slate tiles ran from under the rug to the rectangular blocks of stone that formed the walls. A steel stairway, three feet wide, ran along the sides of the building, with a small landing at each level as the staircase made 90˚ turns. They ascended the steps, taking pains not to use the railings, their footsteps echoing, breathing hard as they reached the top floor. The large baton keyboard for the carillon stood at the center of the small square room on a worn and dusty hardwood floor. Ray noted how much the keyboard resembled a piano. His eyes followed the steel cables that ran from the back of the keyboard to a mechanical maze of turnbuckles, tumblers, clappers, return springs, and dozens of bells overhead.

“So she used the chair to climb up. The window is not very big,” said Pascoe, calling his attention to the east window, one of four windows, five feet above the floor that looked out over campus, the metal sash pushed to the right. A chair stood below.

“Yes,” said Elkins, inspecting the window-frame. “There was no room for her to sit and ponder whether or not she wanted to go through with this. All she could do was pull herself through the window and tumble.”

“I can’t imagine,” said Pascoe with a shiver. “The mate’s on the ground next to the body,” she said, pointing to a small black shoe.

“See if you can find evidence of the shoes on the chair or if she used them to help push herself up the wall.” Elkins pointed to the dull gray granite. “Dust the door handle, railings, chair, sill, window latch, anything she might have touched. Look for fibers, especially near the chair and around the window. And the key, look for the key.”

Elkins moved toward the stairs. “And call Dr. Gutiérez in pathology at Medical Center and brief her. When the M.E. has signed off, get the body over there. I’d like the autopsy a.s.a.p. I’ll adjust my calendar so I can attend.”

As Elkins drove across campus, he thought about the changes in his professional life in the last six months. For more than a dozen years his focus had been teaching and writing about criminal justice, and in the last few years he had become an academic department chair. The sudden temporary assignment of running the day-to-day operations of a campus police department had been a dramatic change.

Looking at the body really hit him. Perhaps it was Ellen’s death. Death had become so real. Or maybe, he speculated, he had been away from real police work so long that he had lost his ability to be a disinterested observer.

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