There was the desk, with a fresh-looking white sheet of paper on top of it. There was the chair, capsized, and beside it, the fallen can of Old Speckled Hen beer, cut at the top, that the Professor used as a support for his pens and pencils. Those were all over the carpet, Miss Falasco on her knees catching them, madly catching them, mechanically, shaking, trying hard not to think about what else was on the carpet. Not to look at the body. Dead. Professor Duval, historian, an authority in World War II spying and Special Ops, killed by what seemed a shot from a small caliber weapon at close range: there was a black-red hole, all blood and gunpowder, where his right eye ought to have been.
At the door, Ricardo gasped. Miss Falasco, the university president’s secretary, tall, thin, young and blonde, smartly dressed in a black skirt and cream-colored jacket, jumped to her feet, pens and pencils falling from her hands, raining once more on the carpet. There were tears in her eyes.
“You sent the janitor for me?” Ricardo asked. He’d been awake, washed and dressed since 6 AM, after being expelled from the bed by an especially ghastly nightmare, and some three hours later the janitor of the History Faculty building appeared, asking for him at the Visiting Scholar’s Hotel in the campus. The university’s buildings officially opened at half-past eight, but the senior professors had their own keys, and the staff arrived between seven-thirty and eight. Duval had probably been there all night, too excited to go home as the votes were counted.
“He wouldn’t answer the door.” Miss Falasco was blabbering, stuttering. “I came here to congratulate him, he wouldn’t open the door. Then I heard the shot. And ...”
The janitor was right behind them, and when she stopped, he continued.
“The miss screamed. I came. My key wouldn’t turn the lock—when there’s a key in the lock inside, the blasted thing jams and the door cannot be opened by the outside. Miss Falasco was crying about the shot she’d heard, so I broke the door down.” The janitor, a small, square-shouldered, somewhat overweight man with big hands and three chins, seemed vaguely pleased with himself at that point. “That’s what we found. Then the miss suggested I should pick you up, so I did it.”
“Why me? Why not the police?”
“Oh, we called the cops,” the janitor said. “But you know how they are. There won’t be any hurry to look upon a clear case of suicide.”
“That’s why I sent for you,” Miss Falasco said, a little more composed. “You were his friend. His pupil. He had no family. In face of the scandal ...”
Scandal? Ricardo thought. Does a suicide still scandalize anyone, at this day and age?
The pupil was young, perhaps only five or six years older than the beautiful secretary. He’d come from Rio Grande, the southernmost Brazilian state, to train under Professor Duval and, if everything went right, to induce him to support his request of a scholarship to complete his doctor’s thesis in London. It was only obvious that he needed to do his research on the SOE, the British clandestine warfare unit of WWII, in Britain, if the final work was to be taken seriously in the academic world.
Duval wasn’t having too much time to spend with his disciple, however. Ricardo’s arrival had coincided with the campaign for the post of university president. Students, faculty and older workers all could vote, but only long standing senior members of the faculty could present themselves as candidates. A list of the three most voted would then be sent to the governor of the state, and she would appoint one as the new president for a mandate of four years.
The election had happened the day before, and the vote counting went through the night. That’s why Duval had stayed in his office, Ricardo assumed, to wait for the returns that would be posted, every half an hour, on the university’s website. His laptop was still there, cold and closed, on a shelf over the desk, beside a paperweight of brushed steel.