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AN ACCOUNTABLE DEATH, PART I

by

Tom Sheehan



CHAPTER 1.

Life had been painful enough to Professor George Hinckler, head of the Accounting Department at Bandley College, widowed for fifteen years and desperately missing Miriam on each and every day, and now he had been stabbed fifty times with a rude knife by a maniacal unknown.

On the previous Friday such an event would have been generally unpredictable, or unthinkable, to Maxine Humdroph, associate professor of accounting and statistical analysis at the college in Waltham, Massachusetts. She was the steady girlfriend, lover and best friend of private detective Harry Krisman, whom she believed wanted to solve every murder that had ever been committed, from the first one to now, from Abel to Prof. George Hinckler. Just give him the chance.

She also felt she had no qualities that might be called precognitive. Statistics to her were vital. Numbers would come up. Odds would dance their way. It was the way it was. But that Friday when she had left the campus with Harry for a bird-sighting trip in Vermont, the air had been hung with something different. It was stiletto-sharp, piercing. It happened when she waved at Professor Hinckler, the head of her department at the college. He had hired her, this remarkable, dedicated, lovely widowed old man. A pang, an ache, as real as the air she breathed, came over her.

She took it all the way to Vermont, stiletto, pang, ache, the idea of precognition.

Maxine had never seen a wild turkey, at least away from the dinner table or away from the butcher’s, not even during her growing years in Maine. Home was so far down in Maine it was up near the Canadian border.

Wallagrass, deep-woods deep, was a long way off. It was the place where she had been formed. In a sense, then, she could measure the land that at the present ran out in front of her, and what it carried. The beat of it was in her blood. It had a place of its own with her.

Now she stared out across the rugged woodlands of northern Vermont and heard the cackle and saw the movement in the brush. The October sun had blasted its way across the Northeast Kingdom and the foliage was incendiary. Every now and then a catch would hold fast in her throat as another scene flamed out on a near hillside. It might be true, she thought, that you are never very far from home no matter where you are.

She was dressed warmly. An orange and tan campus coat with large cylindrical brown buttons dangling down the front seemed to dwarf her. Worn sort of jauntily, a brown and orange checkered cap sat atop her head. It could have said I don’t really know what I’m doing out here in the middle of the woods, but it didn’t. The pant legs of pale, rock-washed Elvis slipped into a pair of rubber-soled pacs. Yet, in all that cover, Maxine Humdroph was a stick out.

Harry Krisman, ex-detective of the BPD, private detective now and forever, paramour, fellow bird lover, hockey fanatic, neat as a pin in his blue parka because it fit so close, wearing a prosthetic foot from his BPD wars and one that people rarely realized was there, saw the smile crease Maxine’s face. He preferred to call her Max the Most. He was absolutely in awe of her beauty and her brilliance in matters mundane, earthy, chancy, you name it.

A small backpack rode his shoulders.

The slanting Vermont sun dropped across the sweep of Max’s lashes, the ripeness of her lips, the loveliest of mouths as if at posing. Royal blue of her eyes caught at a piece of the sunlight and held it. There were times when she absolutely forgot about Harry’s foot, it never came into her mind, even when they would make love. Or his missing foot, she would say again.

Looking at her he thought of dinner and dessert, in no particular order.

“He’s so colorful, Harry. See how he flashes in the sun, almost metallic.” Her thick lovely blonde hair was piled neatly on top of her head and carried the checkered cap comfortably.

“If you look closer you’ll see most of his color is in his head and neck, red and white and blue, flag-like if you will.”

Harry Krisman handed Max the Most the field glasses. His hand lingered at the warmth of her hand. She pursed her lips in a wanton kiss. He could see movement under the campus coat and again thought her lovely, and lascivious.

She said, “Let’s review him.”

He read excerpts to her from a small manual. “Meleagris gallopavo or the Common Turkey. Related to pheasants but distinctive enough to have their own family name, the Meleagridae. This one looks to be about 42 to 46 inches, a good-sized bird, and with strong legs. He is spurred. The family ranges from up here all the way down to Mexico. They are non-migratory but wander extensively in search of food.”

“What do they eat that makes them so big?” Max was pointing at the bird.

“Grain, seeds, berries, and fifteen per cent of their intake is insects and small invertebrates. They get fat on oily pecan nuts or other nuts when in season. That’s what does the big dose.”

“A sort of reverse chemical feeding. Thanksgiving is a nutty holiday all the way around.”

He read more information on the behavior and the distribution of the turkeys, before he dropped the small pack off his back.

They were in a sunlit glade. The sun spilled its honey and gold. Grass and leaves softened the ground under them. Somewhere nearby the sun hissed its warmth on a damp surface. They were alone in the world for all intents and purposes.

Harry Krisman pulled out a thermos of coffee, two plastic cups, two deviled ham and cheese sandwiches, and a small bottle of wine he had smuggled into the pack when she wasn’t looking. It was a Madeira she was exceptionally fond of.

Overhead, above the thick forest for a quick turn on the end of one wing, a hawk dove down through trees after prey. Harry thought it to be a Cooper hawk for what he saw of it. The smash of branch and dry leaf could be heard. And a small cry, as if a rabbit had one breath left. The faint cry carried in the stillness.

The sound came fitfully to Maxine. It kept trying to say precognitive to her. For a brief moment she saw the face of George Hinckler at his office window. The face held pain on it.

Then the face went away. Harry smiled at her and brought her back from wherever.

Max the Most took off her campus jacket and dropped it on a clutch of maple and oak leaves. They were yellow and red and orange and acorn brown. A yellow sweater showed her ample endowment. She sat on the jacket and pulled off her boots.

The cry of the taken animal seemed to echo in the air. The sun hung warm over them. Silence threatened time for her. She felt her blood warming.

She wrestled quickly with her Levis.

“Love and energy is all that we have, my fair detective. This will have to do until we get back to Waltham for the sequel.”

Her Levi’s came off a lot easier than they had gone on.

“Oh, Gyrfalcon,” she said to him sometime later in the still-warm sun, “that’s what you call freedom and fancy in flight.” Not once had Harry’s prosthesis entered her mind. The missing foot a long time in their past had become merely a badge of honor.

And in a dark recess of her mind, the turkey had become a turkey vulture.

CHAPTER 2.

On Monday morning the Bandley College campus was a buzzing maelstrom. Word bounced from upper to lower campus, from one end of the campus to the other end: George Hinckler, professor emeritus of the accounting and analysis department, had been found stabbed to death in a men’s room a short way from his office. It was a vicious murder, at least fifty punctures having been made in the older man’s body. His blood had been splattered all over the men’s room. He must have put up a terrific struggle in a wounded condition.

There were no witnesses. No sounds had been heard. No suspicious characters had been reported lurking about.

Prof. Hinckler was a widower. For a long time he had been married to his job and his department at the college.

And he had, essentially, hired Maxine Humdroph out of a clutch of candidates into her current associate professorship. On aside notes he had told a few confederates that she would be a star of classrooms.

Max the Most was devastated when she got to work that morning. The pain, not only of the loss, but the actions of the atrocity itself, boiled in her and then flooded her mind. She began to cry, a sobbing that hung on for a long part of her morning.

His warmth kept coming back to her. She had such sharp visions of the grand old man that he seemed to be just outside her office. Mornings he would come swinging down the hallways in that energetic gait he always had. Love for his work was the glow on his face, the hailing he had for student and for colleague. It seemed that his voice would carry well around the corners ahead of him. It announced day as well as robustness, energy as well as conviction. When he went off to his place in Maine, as often as his work would allow, and at least for three good stays a year, he’d come back with more vitality and good feelings than it would seem possible.

She could see his gray hair, sort of thick and heavy on the sides of his head, and how it thinned across the top of his head, and the heavy gray-white brows that lent his face an air of comfort and warmth. People usually took to him from the very first. And he took to people.

He was, she had thought on more than one occasion, the very personality of Bandley College itself.

She had called Harry Krisman right away. “Please, Harry, please. Please, come over here. Dear George has been murdered. Someone stabbed him fifty times or more, some rat ass bastard.”

Harry Krisman had never heard Max the Most in such straits. It was new to him and brought new images with it, leaping across a whole series of pictures.

He looked out his office window at the city spreading below him from his vantage in the John Hancock Building. No longer a detective in the BPD, he was now in partnership with Kell Thorn in the Krisman-Thorn Private Detective Agency. The names were on the office door, in gold leaf. Kell had insisted on gold leaf, as he had insisted on Harry getting first billing.

“You’ve been at this a lot longer than I have, Harry,” Kell had said. “I’m only a judge who has been disbarred and disrobed for being the man I always wanted to be.”

*

Harry could remember the first time he had seen Judge Kell Thorn in action. The two young thugs were in front of him, ready for sentencing. They looked neither wide-eyed nor frightened in any manner, but rather haughty and aloof to what their future would bring to them. The judge saw the disdain on their faces. He hit them with two barrels of shot.

“Gentlemen, because you have given some kind of evidence to the police about others,” which he freely admitted after to be one huge lie that might later on bring its own rewards down upon their deserving heads, “and because if I send you away today to where I should send you, you will guaranteed be somebody’s girlfriends before the night is over. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sure you’d enlighten me the next time we see each other, unless, of course, your persuasion is of another kind.”

He had flashed a smile at the young punks and at their lawyer who was struggling to voice his objections. “Three years on probation. One parking ticket and you’re friendly with someone you won’t like.” It was a threat that hung like a blade in the courtroom.

Harry Krisman had found a needed hero. Al Viletti, his old captain of detectives at BPD, had died in bed with his girl friend Bobbi Turnelli, and the job Harry Krisman wanted most in the world was given to a friend of Commissioner of Police Royal Hapgood.

The new captain was an ass kisser of the first order.

Harry Krisman became a private detective. The new captain gave birth to the idea; a maniac ramming a truck down a narrow alley at Harry had affirmed it. Harry dove through a cellar window. All of him made it through the window except one foot. Kell Thorn had come to him, a healthy, red-faced, exuberant man of six feet, keen of eye, alert all the time, with a penchant for small cigars with white mouthpieces. His hair was early gray, his jaw firm, and his nose broken a number of times early in life by downfield blockers intent on wiping out a Yale defender. A dark blue or black cape was always the prominent part of his dress.

“I know about you, Krisman. I have heard a lot about you. I know how you work. A lot of input has been given to me by Gus McKan who, I must say, shares a lot of the same feelings with me, and who you worked with on the child/vigilante thing. I am well off in my own right. I have no financial worries whatsoever. I have been bounced by a bunch of sad-ass bastards who have no balls left in their scrotums. Whatever they may think, I am still dead against crime and criminals that tend to destroy any and all elements of our society. I am going to work the rest of my life against those who pander and pluck and fuck with the innocent. If you want a partner in your enterprise, I am most willing to be that partner.”

Max the Most had blessed the union, and Harry Krisman knew that he trusted Maxine Humdroph more than he had trusted any person in his entire life.

Now on this morning, the love of his life feeling deep sorrow and distress, the edge of her voice carrying what he never heard coming from her, he pictured the Bandley campus moving ever so slowly around the death of a beloved figure. Harry waited for the former judge and the new private detective to enter the office. Kell Thorn was about due, as punctual and as steady as a Boston meter maid.

Harry heard the outer door open and close, then Kell Thorn entered the office. An energy came through the door with him. He wore an elegant gray suit. It surely was not off the rack at Filene’s. The press in his pants was serious. Over his shoulders draped a dark and luxurious cape saying he could have stepped right from backstage at the Schubert. The brightness of his smile was pure acetylene in the ruddy face, a flash of health and prosperity.

“I bet you’ve heard from Max,” Kell Thorn said. “I heard on the car radio about the prof over there at Bandley.” His eyes were steely gray-green, he was cleanly and recently shaved but there was a definite edge to his shaved contour. He was men’s magazine handsome, dark, a hunter, not a gatherer.

“Hung up on her a few minutes ago,” Harry Krisman said.

Harry was in a neat brown suit that had a number of close mates in his closet, in color, tone, texture, and personality. He wore a soft green tie with a trim, small knot at the neckline. Sometimes he was a very proper period at the end of a very proper sentence. On a page with lots of white space.

“She was very fond of that old guy,” he continued. “He was the one who brought her in to Bandley. Must have had some keen eye. Saw what I saw in her, or close to it.” He had bridged a small smile that Thorn read.

“Not the whole her, eh, Harry.” It was not an insider statement. There was no thrust of the elbow in the gut. No innuendo. It was plain acceptable fact that Maxine Humdroph was known to Kell Thorn, as she had been from day one to Harry Krisman, as a very remarkable woman few people might have seen.

“You want to trot over there with me?”

Kell Thorn brightened. “I’ll drive. We’ll go to Bandley in my Bentley machine.”

“We’ll have to do a song on that,” Harry said and smiled in his friendly manner, no business for the moment but coming soon enough.

Thorn drove through parts of Newton and Watertown, taking roads Harry had rarely been on. “This is old country to me,” he said to Krisman. Sliding across a quiet Route 20, down beside a quiet cemetery, he turned to Harry. “What do you know about Professor Hinckler, Harry?”

“All that Max ever told me is he’s been widowed for perhaps fifteen or more years, has a place down Maine he visits for long stays three times a year only, like clockwork. He has a ‘75 Buick that’s chromed, clean, and probably doesn’t show more than 35,000 miles on the odometer.”

“That could be all down Maine and back travel,” Kell Thorn said, “with not much running around left over.” And then asked, “No women in his life?”

“None that Max ever knew about. And never asked.”

A few moments of silence curled about the insides of the Bentley as it passed through a corner of Belmont and then went past the American Legion building on Beaver Street, a short way from the Bandley campus. The little car climbed from Beaver Street between the lower and upper campuses and went past the campus security building.

Both men were contemplating the life of a man without a woman in his life. It was unthinkable to both of them. It had never been that way with Kell Thorn. It was only recently that it had changed with Harry Krisman.

CHAPTER 3.

Max the Most was in her office in the Morrison Building on the upper campus when they reached Bandley. Kell Thorn saw the nameplate at the door. Maxine Humdroph, Accounting and Statistical Analysis.

Her office was private and had a desk and computer set-up and a small credenza beside the desk. A glut of books filled a small bookcase against another wall. Magazines and more books spilled across the top of the bookcase. On the credenza were a picture of a strikingly beautiful falcon, family Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus, and a picture of Harry Krisman at a beach somewhere. He was wearing a Celtics windbreaker.

Max had been crying. A great deal. Her eyes were extremely red. It stole something from her beautiful face. But not much. Her lips were softly red and carefully edged. They had an unconscious pout to them that seemed full of stories or promise.

Thorn guessed. Harry knew.

Papers were cluttered on her desk. The computer screen was dark.

“Max, I’m very sorry,” Harry said. He put his arms around her. She leaned softly against him in a pale blue blouse and a dark skirt. Her blonde hair was still piled on her head and she wore small gold Cladda earrings.

Kell Thorn stepped to her side. “Maxine, he must have been someone special to you. I know how you must feel. We’ll do whatever we can to get the one who did it.” His voice was low and structured and carried a sense of weightiness to it. When she had first met Kell Thorn, first heard him speak, she knew he would have made a wonderful reader for the blind for Perkins Institute, just up the road in Watertown, or a PBS announcer on one of her favorite animal shows. She thought it deeper than Alexander Scourby’s, but slightly less than Richard Burton’s, but it projected.

She took his extended hand. “Thank you, Kell. And thank you for coming with Harry. But you haven’t heard the worst yet.” Her voice had changed. A sadder look came across her face.

“The police have taken one of my current students in for questioning. David Crestwood. He’s a lovely young man, excellent in class, a thinker. Honor student. Made the President’s List last two terms. Has a bright future. I really enjoy him in class. I know he didn’t do it. I know it! It would all be so pointless, so unthinkable.”

“Why him, Max?” Harry was still holding her close.

“The police found one of his papers crumpled in the waste container in the rest room,” she replied, “and another one near the walkway in the back of Morrison, that’s this building. There doesn’t appear to be any earthly reason for them to have been there except by accident. And he has absolutely no alibi for the time of the murder. They said it was done about nine-thirty last evening. David said he was alone in his room down in Orchard South, which is on the Lower Campus near the ball fields. His roommates, two of them, said they were out at the gym for more than an hour.”

“Did he have Professor Hinckler for any of his courses?” Kell asked.

“Yes,” Max replied. “He’s a senior. Had him in some special advanced classes. AC 401, Directed Study in Accounting, and AC 411, Accounting Theory Seminar. And he’s had him for at least two other classes, earlier, that I know of. Always got great marks from him. George and I talked on more than one occasion about David. About what a good student he was.”

She shook her head again. “It would be so pointless! So pointless!”

“Was nine-thirty at night an unusual hour for the prof to be in this building?” Harry was looking down on the campus as it spread out over the hill around them.

“Oh, god, no!” Max replied. “Most nights of the week he was here late, as late as that. And often on weekends too.” She looked around her office. Both Krisman and Thorn thought she might be searching for something that would keep a person that late at night. Nothing grasped at her attention. Not the computer with the dark screen or the pile of papers on the desk or the collection of magazines and books in the bookcase. Not the room itself, dark mahogany, rigid in a sense, a room that could be perceived as cold by one kind of eye and yet not by another.

She looked out the window, out over the spread of the upper campus, lawns and parking lots and the circuit road and buildings tiering beyond. The sun dazzled leaves in the treetops, shifted like gunshots off some leaves wearing yet a lacquered sheen. Flares of sunlight, silent, silver at heart, leaped out of the parking lots. Below on the walkways students sauntered by in a variety of sweaters and jerseys and jackets, ball caps on backwards, book bags carried in a hundred different manners, some in definite Levi’s’ gaits, some now and then in skirts, now and then in a pair of shorts. The grass was still a lovely deep green, almost a jade green, now that it was a little thicker, not cut earlier in the week as usual, perhaps to be cut for the last time in the year.

Behind her the two men tried to assess her thoughts. Neither was successful, it appeared. She turned to face them. The tears were gone. The redness that had welled about her eyes had paled with composure.

“He had this place and he had Maine. He had his courses and his students, and he had Maine. I don’t know what he had in Maine, but I can almost imagine totally what he had here. It was in his blood.”

She looked into Harry’s eyes as if imposing a sense of understanding.

Harry thought it was like looking into the heart of a lovely vase while it was being formed in the middle of fire.

She never ceased to amaze him.

He knew she never would.

“If you could have talked to him,” she continued, “ you would have known that. He had a fever with numbers and calculations. With odds and probabilities. He could break things down. There was always a sort of adventure going on in his life. He made it that way.”

“You paint a marvelous picture of both interest and dedication, Maxine.” Kell’s voice, momentarily emotional, went basso deep, sincere.

“After you check out everything here,” Max said, spreading her hands and arms out wide as if to encompass all of Bandley College, “you can do something for me.”

Her eyes were lit up. The thinking cap was in place. She drew her lips together as if she were working on a lollipop.

Harry was caught between the sensual her and the mindful her.

It would be a battle that would go on and on, he knew. And that was the intense pleasure she could bring to things.

From the very beginning, that had been evident.

Harry Krisman didn’t know what was she was going to say this time from the loveliest of lips, the most dangerous of lips.

“You name it, Max,” he said, as if he might somehow cut into her line of thought, or ensure sanity would stay in play. There were times when Max could fool him entirely

Taking Harry’s hands in hers, she said, very earnestly, “Find out what Maine had for him that took him away from here. I know it will be important.”

Harry Krisman knew right off that it would be as she said, probably had calculated the certainty in a fierce mindset that neither he nor the judge could ever displace.

Across the room, his cape over one arm, Kell Thorn was coming to the same conclusion.

TO BE CONTINUED…





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is the first instalment of “An Accountable Death”, a crime novel by Tom Sheehan, who is one of 3 AM Magazine’s favourite writers. His work, ranging from fictionalized childhood memories to crime novels, has been largely published on the web and print projects are underway, not to mention those already published, some of which were discussed in an interview with the author last Spring. The following web zines have published Tom’s work: Three Candles Review, Newwriters.com (at which he is a partner), Eastoftheweb.com, New Works Review, Electric Acorn, Aileron, Snowbound, 2River Review, Fluid Ink Press, Melic Review, Split Shot Review, Kota Review, Comrade 31st Regiment, and the site of Saugus, Mas., Tom Sheehan’s home town.

You can contact the author at : tomsheehan@mediaone.net, and visit his website.


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