There we were, Selwyn, Anderson, and I, standing in an awkward little huddle around the body. To be fair, we academics do most things awkwardly. It didn’t help that Selwyn and Anderson kept glaring at each other over the dead man’s crushed skull. The only person they hated more than each other was lying dead between them, and they were probably calculating how to disprove his final theorem, and who’d get there first.
Selwyn held up his phone.
“Police should be here soon.”
“Meanwhile we stand here and shoo away undergrads?” grumbled Anderson.
A few curious faces did peer at us across the quad, but undergrads are normally too intimidated to approach one teacher, let alone a gaggle of three.
We waited, blinking in the midday sun. Anderson wiped his gleaming bald pate with a handkerchief, while Selwyn sneered at him from under a prodigious afro.
I’d had just about enough of those two when the police arrived, and a detective took charge of us.
“So, which one of you did it?” he asked jovially.
I gave him my signature So We Have a Joker in the Class look. He sobered right up.
“I’m Detective Martin,” he said to me. “I understand you found the body, ma’am?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m Alicia Croft, Professor Chen’s research assistant.”
“That’s him,” added Selwyn with a sideways thumb motion.
“She saw him fall,” chimed in Anderson.
Detective Martin looked at me, pen and notebook poised. There was nothing for it but to relive that stomach-lurching moment of a few minutes and a lifetime ago.
“I was walking across the quad when I saw Professor Chen at the top of those stairs. His office is up there. Suddenly he pitched forward…” There really wasn’t much to it, now that I’d said it aloud.
The detective squinted up at the narrow staircase decorating the outside of the building, in the old mesa style. The long balcony it led to was in shadow.
“Doesn’t look very safe,” he remarked.
“No, he was a fool to go that way, but it was his shortcut,” said Anderson.
“And where were you at that time, Mr. –?”
“Doctor Anderson,” said Anderson coldly. “I was on the balcony, but much farther away. The first I knew of it was Dr. Croft screaming.”
“And you, sir?” Martin asked Selwyn.
“I was in my office, which adjoins Dr. Chen’s. I ran out when I heard the scream.”
“We both ran down the stairs when we saw the –” This time Anderson made the thumb motion at his esteemed colleague’s body.
“I see,” Martin said thoughtfully. I could tell what he was thinking. In those shadows, either of them could have pushed Chen without a soul knowing. Not even me, and I was looking right up at him.
After the professors left, the detective cast me a shrewd look. I held up my hands in protest.
“Don’t ask me which one of them did it.”
“But there were… professional rivalries?”
“The three of them hated each other,” I admitted. “And now either Selwyn or Anderson will get Chen’s position as department head.”
“And if there’s anything else…” He hesitated, and so did I. A lowly research assistant doesn’t spill her superiors’ secrets. But then, this was murder.
“When they ran toward me,” I said finally, “Selwyn was hardly out of breath, but Anderson was panting for his life.”
“I see.” A gleam came into the detective’s eyes. He was on the track now. He thanked me hastily and started up the staircase. And I turned back across the quad, relieved to be finally done here.
It didn’t really matter what he concluded: that Selwyn was unruffled because he’d been standing right behind Chen, or that Anderson was huffing because he’d just pushed Chen off a building. With their nasty personalities, one of them would get convicted, and the other would move up to department head. And I’d get one of their professorships. A compact mirror, a beam of sunlight, one nearsighted professor on an unsafe staircase, and there you have it — promotion. I smiled, the prospect warming me like the afternoon sunshine.
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