“Right,” Brodie Macbeth said out loud to her empty office, trying to ignore a tension headache.
She had to break up with Stanton tonight. He was on sabbatical from the university and leaving soon for California to film a documentary on presidential politics. If she didn’t do it at dinner she’d have to wait weeks for another chance. Her students would break up with a text message but a tenured professor needed to have higher standards.
Even if the tenured professor was about to be crushed by a lingering feeling of dead weight.
Brodie rubbed her forehead and stared at the cheatsheet she’d written for the occasion. Stanton was an intelligent, mature man. He’d appreciate her intelligent, mature approach.
Three years has been enough time to establish incompatibility.
It’s time to take stock of our individual life goals.
This is an opportunity for our relationship to move to a more professional level.
“Dear Lord,” Brodie murmured, her heart sinking into her toes. She had a PhD in history and written a bestseller, yet she’d never read such drivel in all her life.
She moodily tapped the Johnny Cash bobble figure on her desk, making it nod jauntily at the framed photos lined up beside it.
Her dog Mouse in mid-Frisbee catch.
Brodie and her father when she’d graduated from the University of Virginia.
Brodie and her father when she’d received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University.
Brodie and her best friend Diana Johnson 14 years ago on the night the two seniors led the University of Virginia women’s basketball team to a wild screaming 82-80 victory over Duke for the southern division title.
The two women mugging for the camera were both athletic, but the resemblance ended there. Diana looked like an Egyptian princess with her slender build, dark skin, black eyes, and high cheekbones. In contrast, Brodie’s muscular frame, pink and white complexion, blonde ponytail, and gray eyes pointed to ancestors who wore kilts and tossed cabers. The outdated basketball uniforms made both look taller than their respective 5’10” heights.
Johnny’s head started running out of bob. The last photo was of Brodie and Stanton at the university provost’s fund raiser last year. Stanton was ascetically slim and darkly Irish in an Armani tuxedo. With her long blonde hair pulled into a severe bun, Brodie had on a black dress and flat shoes in an unsuccessful attempt to look narrower and shorter. She and Stanton were standing side by side. But not touching.
Our whole stupid relationship in one photo. Brodie flipped the picture face down and threw herself back in her desk chair. Her head pounded.
The problem was that she knew just how the evening would go. She’d begin with a carefully phrased opener. Stanton would pretend not to understand. Brodie would clarify that they really had no relationship besides being each other’s trophy date for every university event. Stanton would bristle and get forceful, causing Brodie to freeze up, pull back, turn into a doormat–anything to avoid an emotional confrontation. Stanton would spend the rest of the evening gassing on happily about how they were the power couple of the College of Arts and Sciences while Brodie made bread pills.
She picked a Lee Roy Parnell song from the music menu on her laptop, put her feet up on the desk, stared out the window, and mentally berated herself for being such a coward. It was late February, a few weeks into the spring semester, and the University of Virginia campus was glossed with a rare snowfall. Students used cafeteria trays to surf across The Lawn, the broad expanse of grass bordered by the Pavilions housing designed by Thomas Jefferson. As Lee Roy started singing that he was country down to his soul, Brodie wished she was outside, too. In jeans and having fun. Instead she was in her stuffy office in Randall Hall wearing black pants and a beige twinset. And what could be more fun than trying to figure out how to extricate herself from a non-relationship?
The phone rang. “Dr. Macbeth,” Brodie answered automatically, starting to doodle a chessboard on the cheatsheet.
“This is Sergeant Hank Falcone of the Boston Police Department,” a deep voice said. “Is this Dr. Brodie Margaret Macbeth . . . uh . . . at the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia?
“Yes.” Brodie slowly put her feet down on the floor. “Yes, it is.”
“Dr. Macbeth, are you the author of George and Martha?” The voice on the other end sounded hesitant. “That new biography? We’ve all read it here at the precinct house.”
“Yes,” Brodie said. “That’s me. How can I help you, Sergeant, uh, Falcone, did you say?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but I’m investigating a possible crime scene and your name has come up in connection with our investigation.”
“You’re calling from Boston?” Brodie verified. A bad feeling crept up her spine and made her forget the headache.
“Yes, ma’am,” Sergeant Falcone said. “Are you acquainted with a Wallace Macbeth of 1296 Granite Castle Road, Charlottesville, Virginia?”
“Dr. Wallace Macbeth is my father,” Brodie said, as the bad feeling turned into the sensation of dropping into a dark void. “And the head of the history department here.”
“Dr. Macbeth, I regret to inform you that a man tentatively identified as Wallace Macbeth was pronounced deceased this morning at 10:40 am. He appears to have fallen out of a window of a downtown hotel.”
“No,” Brodie said. Without realizing what she was doing she stood up and bent over the desk as her stomach spasmed with tension. “Dad was at Harvard this morning. Giving a guest lecture. You can call their history department. I’m sure they’ll tell you. He’s very well known.”
“The incident we’re investigating concerns a white male, aged approximately 65. Six feet three inches tall, 190 pounds, with white hair and gray eyes. Wearing a blue wool sweater, plaid flannel shirt, and brown corduroy pants. Does that sound like a description of your father, ma’am?”
“Oh, God.” Brodie’s office shimmered around her, making the bookshelves and country music memorabilia hazy and indistinct.
“Dr. Macbeth,” the police office said gently.
“How did you get my number?” Brodie asked, fighting for air against the vertigo. Suddenly Lee Roy’s slide guitar was too much and she jabbed at the laptop to stop the music.
“There were three business cards in the deceased’s wallet,” Sergeant Falcone said. “Yours, that of a Dr. Stanton Sloane, also of the University of Virginia, and a Dr. Donald Pedder from Stanford University. We called you first. Do you know them?”
“Dr. Sloane,” Brodie said. “He’s a . . . a family friend.”
“And Dr. Pedder?”
“I don’t know.”
“Dr. Macbeth, was your father married?”
“No,” Brodie said, blinking with the change of subject. “My father’s a widower.”
“Would that make you next of kin?”
Brodie sat down in her chair before she passed out standing up. She gulped air and managed to say yes.
“As the next of kin to Wallace Macbeth,” the police officer went on. “We’d like you to come to Boston and identify the body.”
Again the room swam and Brodie breathed hard to prevent herself from passing out. “I can do that,” she finally managed.
“Is there someone you can call to accompany you, ma’am?”
“Can you please me call as soon as you know your itinerary? We can have someone meet your flight.” Sergeant Falcone gave her several numbers. Brodie’s hand was shaking so badly that her handwriting was big and loopy as she copied them down.
This is all a mistake. Brodie broke the connection, found the information her father had given her before he’d left two days ago, and dialed his hotel. It was 4:00 pm; he would be back from giving his lecture at Harvard, and they’d have a good laugh.
The hotel operator put her on hold as soon as she asked for Dr. Wallace Macbeth’s room. Light jazz played in her ear and then the hotel manager came on the line and regretted that he would have to refer her inquiry about this particular hotel guest to Boston Police Sergeant Hank Falcone.
The fight or flight instinct surged up and adrenaline pumped through Brodie’s body. She disconnected and dialed an internal university number.
“Liz,” she said as soon as the phone was answered. “This is Dr. Macbeth. Is Coach Johnson there?”
“She’s in the gym,” the Athletic Department secretary said. “Ooh, I’m glad you called. Do you remember Monica Corelli? She’s the scout from Coach Johnson’s old WNBA team. She was here Monday when you were practicing with us. She said she couldn’t believe you never made it to the WNBA. You’ve still got it, Dr. Macbeth.”
“Coach Johnson, Liz,” Brodie said, trying to keep her voice from cracking. “It’s urgent.”
A recorded voice started talking about athletics at the University of Virginia. Brodie wound her long ponytail in her free hand, twisting it until her scalp stung enough to keep her from passing out or throwing up.
The recording was cut off by Diana’s voice. “Brodie? What’s up? Liz said it was urgent and that you sounded odd.”
“I know this is bad timing,” Brodie gulped. “Middle of the season and all. But can you go to Boston with me? Today?”
“Today?” Diana echoed in surprise.
“A police officer called from Boston.” Brodie’s chest tightened again and she had to stop talking to suck in air. After a moment she went on, her eyes closed against the fear in her heart. “They said that Dad . . . or somebody . . . fell. There’s a body. The person fell out of a hotel window. And the hotel said to call the police. I have to . . . go and identify it. The body. As soon as possible.”
The sound of something heavy hitting the floor made Brodie start and look up. Sarah Gibbard, the history department’s plump secretary, stood in Brodie’s open office door, her face crumpling. There was an untidy pile of books by her feet.
“You’re in your office, right?” Diana said in Brodie’s ear. “I’ll be over in five minutes.”
Brodie put down the phone, swept around the desk, and hugged the secretary who was now weeping openly in the doorway. “Let’s not buy trouble, Sarah,” Brodie said. “Don’t cry.”
“Oh, no.” Sarah sobbed into Brodie’s cardigan.
“Maybe Dad got pickpocketed and somebody else had his wallet,” Brodie babbled. “That person fell. That other person.”
“But the police,” Sarah said chokingly. “I heard what you said.”
“It has to be a mistake,” Brodie said and tightened her hold on Sarah. The woman had been Wallace Macbeth’s secretary for nearly 20 years. “Please don’t cry. It’s a joke or something. Dad’s fine. Really he is.”
Sarah sobbed harder.
Brodie’s teeth started to chatter from the adrenaline rush. Her mind jumped around crazily, desperate to find a different explanation.
Her father was aloof, eccentric, absentminded. He routinely lost keys, wore clothes until they were threadbare, and was habitually late for their regular Wednesday night dinners. But he was also a brilliant historian, head of the Corcoran Department of History, and one of the University of Virginia’s most respected and popular faculty members.
He was certainly smart enough not to fall out of a hotel window.