My first case as a detective involved the murder of an English professor, shot in his office on March 14th at one minute to two o’clock in the afternoon—a precision communicated to the police department by one of the many people who called in the crime, and relayed to my partner and me by our lieutenant with a sardonic smile.
I’ve been accused of being too serious, so I was glad to find that the lieutenant’s callousness seemed to bother my partner just as much as it bothered me. He was suddenly in a quiet and pensive mood, which, although we’d only met that morning, I already knew was an unnatural state for him.
“My car or yours?” I had concerns that my partner, Bellock, wouldn’t fit—or, to put it charitably, fit comfortably—in my small Honda Civic’s passenger seat.
“Your car,” Bellock said, still seeming a bit distracted. “I don’t drive.”
When we arrived on campus fifteen minutes later, Bellock pushed open the door and grunted as he stepped out of the car. He started walking briskly, but in the wrong direction.
“The building is this way,” I called out after him, trying to mask my surprise and concern at a detective who got lost in the first minute of our first investigation together.
Bellock was already crossing the street (against the light, and ignoring the honks of disgruntled drivers), his destination seemingly a 50s-style diner. For such a big man with such short legs, I thought, he sure could move quickly.
I waited for the light to change and followed him. Through the diner’s large windows, I saw him squeeze into a booth and place an order with the waitress.
Inside I stood by his table but it took him a while to notice me. “Oh, Penning,” he said, finally. “You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve been very impolite. Would you like some pie as well? You’ll just have to promise to sit here quietly while we eat.”
“You ordered pie?”
“Apple, but they have all sorts.”
“Why?” I said, before I could stop myself. Then, realizing the answer to that question was obvious, I said, “Can’t it wait? We have a murder to investigate.”
Amazingly, an annoyed expression overtook the many folds of Bellock’s face. He sighed, stared out the diner window, and said without looking at me, “I’m not ready yet. You may proceed alone if you wish.”
The waitress ducked around me to place the small plate on the table before moving on to refill coffee for the other patrons, but Bellock continued to stare out the window, oblivious to the piece of pie in front of him, to me, and to everything else.
It was over an hour later before he found me at the crime scene in the Arts and Sciences building. I’d released the faculty and students, dismissed the crime scene investigators, and just finished calling the lieutenant to tell him we were sending in the prime suspect for further questioning.
Bellock waited for me to hang up. “Solved the case, then?” he said.
I bit back the response that first presented itself to my mind, and chose to say, instead, “It was pretty straightforward.”
“That’s wonderful,” Bellock said, sitting or rather dropping into the guest chair near the door, seeming genuinely pleased, perhaps relieved that his appetite hadn’t inconvenienced the investigation. “Would you be kind enough to walk me through it?”
“All right,” I said, unable to resist the urge to demonstrate to this veteran detective that the new guy had a few tricks up his sleeve, and perhaps more than a little curious or anxious to see, if I laid out the evidence I had accumulated in front of Bellock, whether he would reach the same conclusion I had.
This is James Stringley’s office (I said). He was in here grading papers—he teaches English—when a knock sounded at that door. It creaked open, and the professor and his guest exchanged words. A prolonged silence followed. Then a single shot rang out—bang!—and half of Professor Stringley’s head splattered on this wall behind his chair.
Within a minute of hearing the gunshot, almost a dozen witnesses were on the scene—the janitor, who had been mopping the floors of the hall around the corner from here; Stringley’s office neighbor, a professor of mathematics named Timothy Luxley; and nine students who were working in the computer lab on the other side of the building.