Authors: P.M. Carlson
Tags: #reading, #academic mystery, #campus crime, #maggie ryan
Maggie Ryan, 1977
by P.M. Carlson
The Mystery Company
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Copyright © 1990 by P.M.
This is a work of fiction.
All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious,
and any resemblance to real people or events is purely
Cover design by Pat
Cover art by Robin
Author photo copyright ©
by Kathy Morris
Doubleday first edition:
The Mystery Company
paperback edition: August 2015
The Mystery Company e-book
edition: October 2015
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The Mystery Company, an
imprint of Crum Creek Press
24 N Bryn Mawr Ave
Bryn Mawr, PA
For Jim, Mike and
I am grateful for the
helpful suggestions of Harry Levin and David I. Grossvogel,
professors and friends. Errors remaining are mine and not
Rien ne me reste.
Jeter ce sac, quelle sottise!
Mais quel geste!
Cyrano de Bergerac
Anatomically, the thing to
do was to hit the brainstem. The medulla oblongata, familiar from
Intro. to Psych., skipped over quickly by bored professors because
it was concerned with plodding functions like reflexes, heartbeat,
breathing. The same services it had performed for eons in fish, in
reptiles, in shrews, in apes. Professors preferred the neocortex,
that Johnny-come-lately that surged out from the humble stem to
fill the skull like an atomic mushroom cloud. The cortex had all
the exciting functions—intelligence, problem-solving, language,
personality, literature. And yet if you damaged the glamorous
cortex, the ages-old medulla—aided by some bright young doctor with
a set of machines—might still keep the frail, well-plumbed bag of
bones and guts ticking along, might even resuscitate a few twitches
of consciousness from the cortical remnants. But damage the
medulla, and the cortex, too, would wither helplessly on its
ancient, bleeding stalk.
The gun was tiny,
snub-nosed, but heavy enough to drag down the clothes a little. Or
maybe it wasn’t physical weight, maybe it was, as they said,
psychological. The months of fear, of not knowing enough, of
frustration at every attempt to resolve the problems, all now
coalesced into a compact steel mechanism in the pocket. A solution
of sorts to the insoluble. Something that could clip out poison
mushrooms at the stem.
And afterward? Who could
tell? Tracks had been covered, loved ones protected. Values
conflicted, and choices had to be made.
Muggy with the humid
breath of vigorous new maple leaves and young vines, the June
morning sent sweat trickling down Associate Professor Charlie
Fielding’s heaving chest. He was bounding up the railroad-tie steps
from the parking lot to Van Brunt Hall, aviator glasses bouncing on
his slippery nose, making the solid world appear to hiccup with
each step. Charlie was late, and heartbroken. Both Deanna’s fault.
He’d waited half an hour longer than he should have, hoping, but
she hadn’t appeared. Probably with her new friends. Damn her
anyway. Deanna of the glinting hair, whose special magic could
transform a winter afternoon into a tropical haze of laughing
mint-scented delirium. No, it wasn’t over. It couldn’t be over.
Just a misunderstanding. He was sure.
But he’d fix it later.
Right now, he was late for his appointment. And sweating like
under his summer tweed jacket. And, he noted with an inward
groan, his socks didn’t match. One blue, one black. Today was going
to be a stinker.
His office was on the
first floor of Van Brunt, an unimaginative fifties building that
had largish rooms but little else to recommend it. He wrenched open
the door and threw himself into the fluorescent-lit white hall. A
dreary rhythm of brown doors and cream walls flowed past him like
the opening zoom of some science-fiction film. Only the water
fountains and the little brass-rimmed door placards that announced
each professor’s name broke the monotony. Charlie was glad that
someone in the Buildings Department, in a rare fit of maniacal
imagination, had painted the hall of his own wing bright Disney
yellow. Poor fellow had probably been fired instantly in
retribution. True, the color was garish, but better than the main
hall’s vanilla blandness. Dodging the few people strolling through
the hall, Charlie aimed at the yellow gleam and galloped down the
vinyl tunnel. Ben Hur. Usually he could park near his own end of
the building, but today he’d had to settle for the corner farthest
from his office. It was that kind of day, a Jerry Lewis
Charlie!” A glum, tweedy
mountain jutted suddenly into his path. Bart Bickford, reeking of
Sorry, Bart, I’m in a
rush! I’ll see you a little later,” Charlie called over his
shoulder. Bart peered after him, his small eyes blinking below his
massive brow. Pithecanthropus, Tal called him at the Christmas
party, right to his face. No, Bart protested with a grin, that’s
Java Man, that’s you with the coffee. Tobacco is my vice. Tal had
hooted with laughter.
Charlie raced past the
hall clock across from the main office. God, nine-twelve already.
He rounded the corner of his own hall and braked frantically. Three
people—two quite small, all upside down—blocked his door. He caught
himself on the edge of the doorjamb and lurched to a halt. Not Ben
Hur. A Mack Sennett pratfall. The little girl that he’d almost
knocked over returned her sneakered feet calmly to the floor and
straightened out of her handstand. Luminous brown eyes, black
curls, a mischievous grin. “’Scuse me,” she said.
Ditto.” The tallest of
the three, a lanky young woman in her twenties, had bounced upright
from her handstand too. Black curls again, and an infectious smile,
but this time the eyes were jay-blue. He generally didn’t like tall
women, but this one had an endearing gawkiness that made him think
of Big Bird. “We were just practicing our gymnastics. Didn’t expect
anyone to come around the corner so fast.”
Yes, I’m sorry. I’m
running late.” Charlie pressed his aviators up on his nose and
glanced at the young woman doubtfully. “Are you, um, Dr. Ryan?”
Big-boned and slim in her blue jeans and loose sky-blue shirt, she
might be student, faculty, or visiting townie.
Right. Maggie Ryan. And
you’re Dr. Fielding?”
Charlie.” He nodded as he
pulled his office key from his pocket.
The third and smallest
member of the trio still had his hands on the floor, kicking one
short leg out behind him in vain imitation of the handstands. Now
he stood, toddled toward Charlie with a broad grin, and announced,
Will thinks all men are
named Daddy,” Maggie Ryan explained. She grabbed both children,
their dimpled fingers disappearing into her bony hands. “Will and
Sarah, this is Dr. Fielding. He’s the man I’m going to be working
with this summer.”
Charlie smiled at the
children and was rewarded by twin grins. “Hi,” said
Da!” insisted Will
gleefully. Sarah rolled up her eyes.
All right, pick up your
stuff,” Maggie instructed Sarah, swooping up Will with a practiced
arm. “What’s next, Charlie?”
Checking in with our
efficient Cindy Phelps in the departmental office. She’s supposed
to have a sitter ready. Let me just stow my briefcase and we’ll
take the kids over there.”
Stow mine too.” Propping
Will on her hip, Maggie handed over the briefcase to Charlie. He
slid them inside his office door while she helped Sarah tuck a book
back into her satchel.
This way.” Charlie
offered Sarah his hand, but she held his finger for only a few
steps before bouncing ahead to turn a cartwheel. Charlie laughed.
“You’ve got an energetic pair here!”
Yeah. I really sympathize
with my own mom now! Do you have kids?”
No, I’m not married. But
of course I like kids. You see quite a few of them around an
education department. Even one as theoretical as this one.” He
nodded at an open door with a sign painted on it: Main Office,
Educational Psychology. They all trooped in. The no-nonsense
chairman, Reinalter, had kept the drab vanilla-modern decor
provided by the university, but nevertheless a few tools of the
trade had drifted onto the bookcase shelves: a Montessori block, a
carousel projector, a 3-D model of a statistical bivariate normal
surface. Little Sarah headed straight for the life-size plastic
head with a cutaway, take-apart brain in tastefully muted pinks and
purples. Its name was Eric, after the long-dead founder of the
The quiet tapping of the
Selectric halted. “Hi, Charlie.” Cindy Phelps was freckled,
muscular, with a Farrah Fawcett-Majors tumble of highlighted hair
and a shell-pink dress. She ran the department like a high-fashion
spider tending her web.
Hi.” Charlie cleared his
throat. “Cindy, this is Dr. Ryan, the project statistician. You’ve
probably got a form for her to sign.”
Cindy’s prominent blue
eyes swept eloquently to the ceiling. “God, yes! I’ve got forms for
every occasion. And to match any color scheme. Today’s special is
buff and canary.” She nodded toward a chair in the corner. “I’ve
also got you a sitter. One of our undergraduate majors.
Charlie watched his new
statistician size up the tanned, broad-shouldered young woman with
unfashionably short, dark hair who came toward them. “Hi, Liz, I’m
Maggie,” she said. “This is Sarah, and this is Will. I hope you
like reading stories and climbing trees.”
Liz grinned. “Yep. Also
Play-Doh and swimming.”
A trace of caution in
Maggie’s blue eyes. “Swimming?”
I’m on the team here. And
I work as lifeguard at the state park on weekends.”
Maggie relaxed. “You’re
hired! I won’t have to tell you about energetic kids, I see. Here,
Will, meet Liz.” She handed over the little blue-jeaned boy, who
looked up somberly into Liz’s face. “Don’t let them run off too far
just yet, okay? I want to talk to Dr. Fielding a little while, then
I want to talk to you and set up a schedule. Will needs a nap after
lunch or he’s whiny and nasty all afternoon.”
Can do. Why don’t you
come out to the preschool area when you’re done? Northeast corner
of this building.” Liz gestured with her free hand.