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Detective uncovers chaos in academia: Second Saturday Stories

I feel my legs start to twitch. I move my weight to the balls of my feet. The conversation is turning ugly, why can’t this old skeleton go haunt someone else. I feel the weight of the revolver in my waistband but my mind shies away from it like a bad memory. 
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Second Saturday Stories Title Image


The October night chilled the damp parking garage. I will the model T to start. It’s well past its prime, but it served pop well on the farm. That makes it ok by me. 

The T won’t crank over so I scan the dim light for something that looked recently driven. I settle on a two tone Chrysler that looks like money: two tone blue and polished to a mirror shine. I picture the owner parking it after a wash, now cowering against his drapes watching the rain. The thought warms me, all that money and he can’t even go out and spend it. I spit on the concrete. 

I unlock my car and fish the jerry can and length of hose from behind the seat. I look over my shoulder before threading the hose into the Chrysler's gas tank. I take a few huffs on my end of the hose and manage to avoid a mouthful of unleaded as the gas splashes into the jerry can. When the drip slows I fill my tank and try the crank again. The car I’d watched my pop tool around in coughs to life and filled the hollow parking garage with bluster and smoke. I replace my tools and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand as I climb behind the wheel.  

I thread my way through the cars and into the dying light of the afternoon. In the rear view mirror the apartment building is eaten by clouds and I catch what looks like a police patrol wagon tucked behind it like a black beetle in the grey light. 

“you’re being paranoid.” I tell my bloodshot eyes in the rear view mirror. I set them on the road instead, through the one good wiper trying to keep in the lines. 

The air in the cab is heavy and I close my eyes against the headache throbbing above my left eye, pinching the bridge of my nose to ward it off. 

I make it as far as The Nipissing Drug Store. I know it’s a gamble leaving the car running but I need to pick up a few incidentals with my advance. 

I take a few nips from the bottle as I drive up the winding hill towards the stout brickwork university. My headache slides back into the depths as I crunch two aspirins. My head starts to clear and I can finally think straight. What hits me first is how beat up I still feel. I crunch another aspirin and take a nip of the whiskey hoping it acts as a painkiller. I hope Harry looks worse. I hope I gave as good as I got. 

I pass dormitories lit up like Christmas and think of the young minds inside who thought this was what education looked like. The service taught me more in three years than I’d learned in my entire life, but bring that up to one of these eggheads and they look at you sideways. 

My mind wanders to Harry again, how he carried himself yesterday at Nancy’s place; looking down on me with the same academic contempt I saw in the eyes tracking my old jalopy across the parking lot. I’d bet money Harry forgot where he came from the minute he stepped on the train out of town. Maybe he thought if he surrounded himself with old money, some ancient duffer would take to him and write him into the will. We should all be so lucky. 

Unlike Harry I wasn’t stupid enough to go chasing coat tails. I knew who I was and what I wasn’t, worse than that I knew what other people were. They cried and moaned like a milksop until you helped them, but when the shoe was on the other foot they got a sudden case of amnesia. I’d had my share of doors slammed in my face from so called friends, Louise too. A chill shuddered through me. I thought of the office. I blinked hard and focused on the parking lot. 


I snubbed out the butt of a cigarette on the wet asphalt, my loafer toe leaving an ugly back smear on the otherwise pristine white. I take a long pull from the Crown and slip the mickey into my back pocket. I’m aching for a cup of joe. I make a note to find the cafeteria in this dump and see if I can get a cup of jet fuel these bookworms use for an all nighter. The rain does nothing to cool my temper. 

Inside I stick out like a drowned rat. I slip into an open office and swipe a tweed jacket and umbrella from a rack. The jacket just fit and the umbrella added a decent effect. I muss my hair and stroll purposefully into the office of the registrar. The bookworm behind the counter just about leaps out of her seat when she sees me. 

“Please.” I huff as if I’d just taken a lap around the track. “You would not believe my luck today. I was supposed to be here hours ago to meet with Doctor Michael Carruthers. In my haste I seem to have misplaced his office number. You must help, please this could be my job on the line.” 

She was flustered when I walked in, by the time I was finished the old girl was in a full blown panic. She opened a drawer beside her and fumbled through sets of keys. 

“Carmichael you said?” she looks up, her eyes momentarily disappearing as her glasses reflect the overhead lights. 

“No, Carruthers C-A-R-” 

“Never mind, never mind, I’ve found the spares, here you are young man.” 

“bless you ma’am, bless your heart.” I snatch the keys from her before she could continue on with her initial “but.” 

I find a directory and make my way to the basement keeping an eye out for security and an ear for shouting or running feet.

A chill follows me to the basement. The grey walls seem prison drab and I hear what sounds like thunder reverberating through the corridor. 

I expect leather bound chairs and a warm fireplace when I open the door. A bookcase shelved with early first editions and textbooks written by authors with long English names. What I see is far and away from anything I can dream up. 

The place is a rats nest of paperwork and equipment strewn across a wooden desk. Drawers bulge with slips of paper hanging out and there’s a pungent smell in the air like brimstone. My thoughts whisper words like omen and foreboding, so I take out my smokes to busy my hands. A corner of the room is devoted to a chalkboard on wheels stuffed with scratches and lines that makes my vision double when I look at them. In front of it a small desk is the cleanest thing in the office. 

I step inside and do a slow circle surveying the damage. The floorboards creak like a banshee's wail as I make my way to the chair stationed behind the desk. The desk surface is a chaos of paperwork and pencil nubs. A glass ashtray sits off to one side overflowing with dead soldiers. I flip idly through the paperwork with the same result as trying to decipher the blackboard. A framed photo of Mrs. Carruthers tells me a story of a devoted husband, shooting a hole in my original theory. So I’m a little rusty. 

In her gaze I see a cool confidence, but also thinly veiled fear. What’s she afraid of? What are we all afraid of? What if everything we know gets taken from us? This woman lost someone and now she doesn’t know who she is without them. With luck she won’t have to grapple with the question for long. 

I spy a metal filing cabinet behind the door and make my way to it. This time the creaky floor is more of an annoyance than a shock. Two out of five drawers are cleaned out. They seem like prime real estate for some of the papers junking up his desk, so why didn’t he use them? I light a smoke and start pacing the room, the old cogs in my brain are rusty to spin out any conclusions and I struggle with the pieces I’ve seen so far. I idly tap my ash into the tray on the desk corner. I hear the thunder again, it sounds like a heavenly reckoning coming right for me. I look up in time to see a mass darken the doorway. 

The old man pushing a trash can jumps just about as much as I do before a rueful scowl twists his features. 

“What in God’s name is anybody doing in here, the Dean know you’re poking around in here?” 

I slip back into the absent minded professor act that fooled the old biddy upstairs. “Beg pardon sir, I left my watch in here and I’m having a hell- pardon me- a heck of a time finding it.” 

The custodian’s rheumy eyes walk over me for a few beats before he clears his throat and hacks into a rag. 

“Ain’t nothin like that in here, else I’da found it.” He speaks with such finality it’s hard to argue. 

I stick to my bit. “Aw rats, are you sure? I mean I’d hate to lose the thing.” 

“Course I'm sure, didn’t you hear the first time? anything worth anything is gone. That panty waste doctor took it all when he left em high and dry.” A wry smile skitters across the old man’s lips. It tells of a mean streak running deep in the old dog. “Course.” he continued “It’s good to see ‘em sweat now and again. I could watch that Dean eat humble pie 7 days a week and never get tired of it.” He lets out another cackle that turns into another honk into the rag. The gears in my head shake some of the rust loose as I fall into my old pattern, a verbal game where the right moves give up information.

“oh geez, you mean Doctor Carruthers is gone? boy I wish someone hadda told me.” I aim to sound annoyed and incredulous. “Boy, would I like to give that lout a piece of my mind, got a forwarding address I can look him up at?” 

I’ve played my move, I let the old man make his.   

He gives me a sideways glance; the watery yellow eyes swim with coy malice. He shifts his weight forward and leans on his broom handle. “Tell you what stringbean. Pass along some of that hooch you got rolling off you, I’ll tell you everything you want to hear.” 

The old rattlesnake knows something’s hinky, but I’m not sunk yet. I tell myself I can afford the loss as the mickey slides through my fingers. I try to believe it. 

The old janitor licks his lips before popping the cork. His gulps goad me from across the room. He finishes the last of it and drops the empty glass into his trash can. He dabs his eyes with the rag. 

“Doctor was on loan to them from King’s government. Had a head full of science the brass figured would keep the students from groping each other long enough to learn something. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks you ask me. The prof’s been gone a few days now, stayed here long enough to get paid. Ask me, I think he was a con man, keeping time with that brainless Simon Mack and now bringing the likes of you sniffing around. Spells trouble. Hell, you got better taste in hooch than he did though!” The old man cackles and this time doesn’t bother with the rag, he just hacks into the trashcan on the heels of my pilfered whiskey. 

He eyes me up again, suddenly silent, and I can tell something’s changed. That the whiskey has started whispering to him. “Matter of fact stringbean why don’t I get your name after all, never know who might blow through here after you. I don’t want my neck in the noose on account of some low life thug.” 

So that’s what he took me for, a loan shark. The implication rolls my stomach. 

“You can call me Jack Daniels, old timer. And don’t worry, nobody’s gunna take away your pension for shooting the breeze with me.” He gives me the hairy eye, weighing his options. “Well all I'm saying is I got a photographic memory.” He taps one twisted finger against his scalp. “Anybody asks, anybody at all, and I can give em every last detail of the prowler I found in the doc’s office.” 

“Whatever helps you sleep at night pops.” I feel my legs start to twitch. I move my weight to the balls of my feet. The conversation is turning ugly, why can’t this old skeleton go haunt someone else. I feel the weight of the revolver in my waistband but my mind shies away from it like a bad memory. 

We stare each other down a few seconds more before he begins backing out. “You’re in here when I come back, it’s gunna be a problem.” He murmurs 

“Far as you’re concerned I’m a ghost rattling around in the basement.” I said. 

Alone again in the office my breath wheezes out of me and I stub out my smoke. My eye catches three different cigarettes in the chaos of ash and the old man’s words start to sink in. He talked about the Doc making time with a particular student. Two of the three butts look like generic Chesterfields you could buy at any local store. The third had the ornamental crown I recognized even picking it up. I knew exactly how it smelled even though the nub was days old. 

The Bristish smokes Grey’s by the tin during the war. what was Carruther’s doing mixed up with an old soldier, and how did the student factor in? I took a step forward and the floor screamed its now familiar wail. I stomp down, annoyed, and the board lifts three inches from its mates. 

Underneath is a hollow cavity. 

I lift the board up enough to take an old tobacco tin out from its hiding place. When I look inside my heart starts hammering and I feel my throat close. For the first time in a long while I want a glass of water to pry open my dry airway so I can clear my mind because I can’t be seeing right. 

My vision doubles like a badly developed photograph and I sit down heavy on the dusty floor. 

The tin is filled with gaming chips. 

A lot of gaming houses make their own chips so they can fleece people of their cash up front. The stack spilling from my palm carries the insignia of a playing card club with a C in the middle. I rub my eyes and look again, confirming what I already know. The Doc’s got great credit with the house at the Chicago Club. Which is good because people who make mistakes at the Chicago Club get a personal visit from Sally Calls, the same guy I ducked out of meeting with last night. If I want more answers, and to potentially find the Doc, I have to walk into the one place where I might be killed on sight. behind my left eye it feels like someone has slowly started twisting a vice. I stand up on shaking legs and make for the door, leaving the tweed jacket in a twisted heap next to the cracked and bent floorboard. 

Continued in the next installment of Second Saturday Stories. If you missed the short bonus scene this morning, click here to read it