Preston Barclay Mystery Series - Book 1
2008 © Donn Taylor
Preston Barclay is a self-made recluse (and he likes it that way). Teaching college history allows him time to grieve the loss of his pianist wife and find relief from the musical hallucinations that have been playing in his head since her death. But when he and headstrong colleague, Mara Thorn, discover the body of another instructor on campus, Press’s monotonous solitude is shaken up.
When the preliminary evidence singles out Press and Mara, they must take some chances (including trusting each other) to build their own defense—by bending the rules just a little bit.
They form an unlikely alliance to stay ahead of the police, the college’s wary and incompetent administration, and whoever is trying to get away with murder. Or else they both might end up unemployed, behind bars, or worse.
Softcover - 364 pages
September 1, 2008
Excerpt from Rhapsody in Red
That Wednesday two weeks before Thanksgiving was a bad day to find a corpse on campus. It was already bad when Professor Mara Thorn came to ask my help.
She did not know, but she found me battling the incessant music in my head and grieving for past Wednesdays when Faith was alive. That had become my Wednesday ritual: close the door of my office in the history department at five o’clock, return to my desk, and linger alone in memories of my wife while darkness brought in the chill of Midwestern evening. I would put off as long as I could my return to the home where Faith and I had raised our daughter, for that house with its silent piano now formed the center of the world’s vast emptiness.
That afternoon, the orchestra in my head was augmenting my grief with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings when someone knocked at my door. The office was dark, but through the door’s frosted glass I saw a shadowy form against the dim lights of the hallway.
“Come in,” I called.
The door opened and the dark form paused on the threshold.
“Professor Barclay?” The voice was feminine, hesitant.
“I’m Preston Barclay,” I said. “The light switch is beside the door to your right.”
The shadow’s arm moved. Light flooded the office and revealed Professor Mara Thorn. I had never spoken with her, but I remembered her introduction last August at the year’s first faculty meeting. She was perhaps thirty-five years old, slender, with a pleasing face and shoulder-length blond hair. She wore no makeup, and her blue eyes held the faculty in a gaze that some described as earnest and others as defiant. I held with the latter view. It’s said that eyes are the windows of the soul, but hers were the embrasures of a fortress.
Her expertise was comparative religions. And that raised the question why a nominally Christian institution like Overton University—the school we knew before The Crisis as Overton Grace College—would hire a Wiccan in its department of religious studies. Most faculty assumed she was part of the new administration’s diversity program.
“Come in,” I said again. My internal musicians shifted suddenly from the solemn Adagio into a series of hideous discords. Harmonious or dissonant, though, that music is all I have left now of Faith. It’s not just a tune here and there, but constant, uncontrollable torrents of music inside my head. The clinical term is “musical hallucinations.” Psychiatrists and neurologists don’t know what causes them, but they say these hallucinations duplicate the ordinary function of listening to music—except that the hallucinated “sounds” don’t come from outside, but are generated internally through a weird malfunction of the brain. The experts have their theories, but I live with the reality. This internal music makes my life like living in a movie that some insane editor has mismatched with the music score from another.
Professor Thorn began to close the door. “I’ve come to ask your help.”
“Leave the door open,” I said. “Come have a chair.” I gestured toward a hardwood straight chair to the left of my desk.
She removed her winter jacket and hung it on the rack next to my overcoat. She wore a long-sleeved violet blouse, and her blue jeans showed none of the currently fashionable fading or fraying. Still hesitant, she kept her eyes on me as she settled into the chair. To ease her mind, I circled the right side of my desk and took a chair opposite her. I hoped my coat and tie wouldn’t make her self-conscious about her jeans.
The open door and the width of the room between us were minimum precautions in these days when a careless word can get a male faculty member accused of sexual harassment. Music may bounce around in my head, but I don’t have any loose screws.
Professor Thorn let the silence linger, broken only by a few clicks from the computer under my desk as it ran one of those automatic programs I’ve never understood. I thought she might have changed her mind, but then she spoke in a rush.
“Professor Barclay, I’ve come to you because everyone on campus respects you.”
I adjusted my trifocals and tried not to look self-conscious. “A lot of people would disagree with that.”
“They also say you’re not afraid to take an unpopular stand.”
. . . but that was in another country; / And besides, the wench is dead.
The quotation flitted across my mind, but I must have spoken aloud because she answered: “I’ve read Christopher Marlowe, too. Though that line may have been added later by Thomas Heywood.”
Score one for her unexpected erudition.
She moistened her lips and turned that blue-steel gaze on me. “Do you know Laila Sloan?”
“I’ve talked with her a few times in groups over lunch.”
I knew more than I was telling. Six years ago our administration added a nursing program to the school’s offerings. Too many of its students failed the required chemistry course, so the nursing faculty and administration tried to drop it from the curriculum. It made no sense to me to graduate nurses ignorant of chemistry, and I led a faculty movement that defeated the curriculum change. So the administration took the course away from the chemistry department and brought in Laila Sloan from a high school across the state, inserting her in the nursing department to teach it. Suddenly, all the nursing students passed chemistry. That made the administration happy.
Except with me.
That’s why I denied being courageous. We work on annual contracts here, with no provision for tenure. Teaching history is all the life I have left to me now, and I’d make a lousy used-car salesman. So ever since then I’ve been quiet as a church mouse with laryngitis.
“I have a problem with Laila.” Professor Thorn looked down at the floor. “She has been friendly with me, more so than the rest of the faculty has.” Her eyes lifted and speared me again with that blue gaze. “But lately she hasn’t kept her hands to herself.”
“She’s an . . . outgoing person,” I said. “Maybe she doesn’t mean any harm.”
Laila was a large woman of about forty, strong and robust. Rumor said she’d been cautioned about “inappropriate touching” of female students, but apparently no one had accused her of an overt advance. And her value to the nursing department ensured that the administration would overlook quite a lot of questionable behavior on her part. They apparently see no contradiction between their laxity in her case and their Draconian approach toward even the appearance of impropriety among less-favored faculty.
Score one for institutional hypocrisy...
Mystery Book 1
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