Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!
Today, I am writing from the outdoor cafe on picturesque third street. The temperature is a lovely 68 (though rising rapidly). If you have been following the blog, then you will recall our discussion about chasing the muse. The muse apparently wanted coffee. Below is the third installment of the mystery series Here Comes Troubelle. I will be uploading two more installments before switching gears and revisiting Failed Intellectuals Inc. Tune in tomorrow for the interview with author Robin Blake!
Here Comes Troubelle, installment three
FROM LAST WEEK:
Stan stopped re-packing his bag and gave Luke a hard look.
“Oh what? Now you’re telling me the car accident wasn’t an accident? Come on!”
“I didn’t say that,” Luke muttered, shooing Porkchop off his desk.
But he was thinking it.
If Officer Luke Troubelle was thinking murder, he wasn’t alone.
Kate’s long fingers hovered gingerly over the sleek key-pad of her new solid-state Intel i5 processor (13.3in screen, though it claimed to be 13 inches even). Her eyes flickered over several news sites, also displayed on her dual monitor flat screens… Car accidents. Drownings. Deaths. Survivors. Seventeen water-related accidents in the past eight years for the county; eleven deaths. Was that a lot, she wondered? Her fingers tapped the keys, scrolling—until she found what she was looking for.
“Troubelle,” Kate corrected without looking up.
“Um, yes.” The man was wearing a crisp blue uniform. The university mailroom handled the basics of delivery, but FedEx still made the rounds. “Signature, please.”
Kate was staring at the pixilated image of an attractive woman in her mid-forties, just under a screaming headline. Pulling away meant leaving her thoughts unfinished. It also meant plunging back into the yawning gulf of leftover papers, research, and form-filling-in that punctuated mid-term time.
“Seems heavy,” FedEx suggested, though he was nosing about Kate’s bizarre office collection: ultra modern equipment that she subsidized herself, next to moldering and moth-eaten books, strings of yak-bone skull beads, too many histories of the Black Plague and what appeared to be a Phrenology head.
“I’m sure,” Kate raised one eyebrow. “You carried it up the stairs, after all.”
“Right.” He shifted uncomfortably. Something about Kate tended to make people feel like third-graders caught passing notes.
Kate handed back his electronic signature pad and began unpacking the box; mostly books on sixteenth-century medicine, one on Chaucer, and three on the Romantic poets. Kate was supposed to be a Victorian scholar, but she couldn’t quite stay in one century. Actually, she kept drifting into the current one: the image on the screen was still beckoning as she hefted the volumes into the origami of her over-stuffed bookshelf, balancing them cairn-like. No one would call Kate messy. Far from it. The office, crammed as it was, was oddly immaculate. It was just also boobie-trapped, and the chair of her department continually despaired that a careless janitor would meet his end in there someday.
She disposed of the box and prepared to re-enter her musings, but there was yet one more shadow at her door. From the slumping posture, despondent and weary, she guessed it to be a student—probably a failing one. But the rumpled concert sticker on his backpack announced something else entirely.
“Oh, um. Hey.”
“You were looking for me?”
“No,” he said, but walked into the office anyway.
Kate settled back and flicked off her computer (a bit reluctantly) and swung the chair around to face the worn blue sofa. Matthew was not a student of hers. Not at the moment, anyway. But he was her advisee—a promising sort, double-majoring in English and business law. Normally bright-eyed and devilishly grinning, Matt seemed collapsed into his rumpled collar, scrunched into himself and melting into his red all-stars. It did not take a degree in detection to know when advice was being sought.
“Have a seat, Matt.”
The boy sunk into the sofa without taking his pack off, which made him look like an uncomfortably perched turtle. Kate watched him pensively. It was still weeks before advising began in earnest—he wasn’t thinking about choosing next semesters classes.
“How are your classes going?” she asked.
“The honors course?”
“Nice. Nice Prof, too,” Matt was fidgeting with the strap of his pack, looking back and forth along the floor. Kate balanced her elbows on the sides of her chair.
“All fine,” Matt croaked… Like a frog with a hiccup. Kate’s eyes darted toward the door—she was near the main office, but luckily by 4pm most people were gone. She’d had some experience with this sort of thing, and sensed a meltdown was fast approaching.
“Ra—” Matt didn’t finish. But he didn’t weep, either. He jumped up, suddenly animated, and walked back and forth in the narrow space, heedless of the danger from potential falling objects.
“She—we—didn’t—and it isn’t right! It’s not right!” he groaned, pulling at his hair and rocking his head back and forth. Kate did not interrupt. She’d had experience with that sort of thing, too. After a few minutes, her silence and watchfulness seemed to have an effect. Matt blinked at her self-consciously, and then slumped back onto the sofa, this time dropping his backpack on the floor beside him.
“Let’s try again from the top,” Kate said in a perfectly measured tone. Matt took a deep breath and nodded.
Matthew Anderson White. It was a good enough name, but not his real one. Not his really real one, as he liked to think. He’d been adopted by the age of eleven—long after he knew what it was to be unwanted. He had a hard time trusting people. Even Mr. and Mrs. White, who were good to him and wished him every success. The trouble was, they were strangely ghost-like, too. A social studies teacher and the owner of a dry-cleaning service. Upstanding, but unremarkable and unmemorable—and weirdly untouchable. Matt had plenty of reserved anger; he assumed all abandoned children did. But there had never been a point to acting out. Whatever he did made no impression on the tidy and completely insular lives his new parents led. White-washed, faded out, unreal. Matt cared about them; of course he did. He wasn’t an ungrateful person. But they did not understand him, or his angst or why he hated life’s unfairness. A good sort of people, but in a meaningless and boringly awful sort of way. Given that kind of history, there were two ways to go. He could hate and sink, or he could please people and rise. Tender-hearted and sensitive, Matt wasn’t very good at hate.
“And you are a terrible liar,” Dr. Troubelle had told him on the very first day of his very first class with her. She hadn’t been mean about it. She didn’t seem to think it was offensive, either, which took some of the sting out. But she was right. He told her he loved English, that he was excited to take the class, that he looked forward to the work. And she shrugged him off like no teacher had ever done… “Like it or lump it. You’re here and you’ll work. Or not. If you fail, we’ll still be friends… But you’ll still fail.”
At first, it seemed like the White philosophy. But it wasn’t. She didn’t care if you failed. She never got fussy if you skipped class. She didn’t even raise an eyebrow if you weren’t paying attention. But she did care. That was the funny thing. And the more you cared, the more she cared back. And for reasons Matt never quite worked out, he worked harder in her class than any other, even the ones who applied the lash as happily as she avoided it. He even changed his major to take more of her classes—then changed his career plans based on her advice. Dr. Troubelle wasn’t likable, exactly. She wasn’t mothering or even terribly kind sometimes. But if you needed the straight story, that’s where you went. Especially if you were in real trouble. And he was.
“It’s Rachel,” he said at last, the words making a long trip from his brain to his mouth. “I think she’s pregnant.”
Stanley arrived home to find Kate in the midst of extensive dinner preparations—and, on a Monday, this was never a good sign.
“Hey babe,” he said, setting his case by the door.
“Don’t leave that there.”
“Right,” Stan picked it up again and retreated to the office (and stepping over Mycroft, paws crossed in the hall). Even the dog looked chastened. This was clearly serious. Judging from the number of mixing bowls, plates and dishes, Kate was assembling at least five meals at once.
“That kind of day?” he asked. Kate was vigorously stirring a viscous liquid, but now she slumped her shoulders. She puckered her lips in thought, then pointed the whisk at him.
“Have you ever thought about having a baby?” she asked.
Stanley fell over a kitchen chair and banged his elbow on the table.
“Ah—baby??” he yelped.
Kate gave him a sharp look, which turned into a smirk, then a grin.
“Not me, you nut-head!” She turned back to the bowl feeling some of her tension slightly eased. “Nice to have a preview of the reaction, though.”
“Ow. Who are you talking about, then? And why ask me?”
“Doesn’t matter. How was the new producer?”
“Pointlessly irritating,” Stan began, then frowned. “How did you know about the new producer? Angie hasn’t been calling here, has she?”
“Charlie called to remind me about Rosa’s confirmation. Sorry to hear that you’re back on the case—but at least they cancelled the benefit dinner.”
“I wouldn’t count on that. This guy’s more of a pain than the last one. First, we need carpenters to blow holes in the walls and put up track shelving—” Stan leaned back in his chair and counted on his fingers. “Then mechanical engineers to design and install the track and motors. I have to get purchasing to okay the equipment, of course…then electricians have to run new power before I can even start programming the controllers.”
Kate wiped her hands on a dish towel and leaned on the chair with a grin.
“So—you, you, you, and then you.”
“More or less,” Stan sighed. “By Wednesday.”
“Well at least you have plenty of time,” she swept her hair up and leaned forward for a peck. “I thought it was going to be unreasonable or something.”
“Uh-huh. You are so funny.”
“Luke will be happy to see you, though. You can help him round up Porkchop.”
“Yeah, and listen to his conspiracy theories. He’s not sure about Arthur Finton’s accident. Thinks there’s something odd about it, but won’t say what.”
Kate returned to the task of dicing peppers… but she’d gotten the eye-brow arch again.
“Well, it is odd in at least one way. I don’t suppose you know Finton’s wife?”
“His wife? I didn’t even know he was married.”
“That’s not surprising. She’s an invalid,” Kate said, thinking of the image on the computer screen in her office. “Her name is Evelyn. She suffered severe brain trauma about a years ago.”
“Good God, I didn’t know that—what happened?” Stan asked, but he was already guessing the answer.
“Her car went into the river,” Kate said, whisking diced onions into a nearby crock.
Stan gave a low whistle as the cold prickle fingered his spine again.
“Hell of a coincidence,” he said.