Chapter 3 – Beware Voicemails Bearing Cases (Part I)

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A place for everything and everything in its place, read the plaque on the Dean of Engineering’s desk. A mantra that Professor Richard Harwood believed he could live by. Except today, everything seemed just a little bit out of place. He carefully returned the plaque to its proper location precisely seven inches away from the left side of the desk and two inches from the edge; he could gauge the location by the way the reflection intersected that of his paper inbox from one side and edged into the white space left by his pen stand. One of his most recent visitors, an uncouth pair, had moved it.

Today his meticulously set schedule had been rearranged by the unexpected—and grossly unwelcome—visits by several functionaries of varying departments at ASU, including the Ombudsman for Grant Funding Allocation and now, of all the things, the FBI. They were poor guests of his office. The woman, who remained silent the entire time, stood quietly at the door and refused to return his introduction; but her partner—a tall Latin man with a strong hairline and a penchant for pursing his lips, paced the entire breath of the room during his interrogation. And certainly that’s how Mr. Harwood would recall their encounter: they attempted to interrogate him about one of his students.

Surely even agents of the Bureau knew that he couldn’t simply give away private and confidential information on students without a warrant. He had no extraordinary love for the student in question, but he did love his job. He had faced members of the police before in his office, this chamber of his justice and authority, and told them flatly to their faces that he could not serve them without the proper credentials and protocol. The whole encounter would have gone better if the man, Agent Ellis, had decided to remain as stationary as the woman agent.

Instead, he touched everything in the room. Harwood saw through this for the gimmick it was, a juvenile attempt to rattle him. An inappropriate crossing of boundaries in a poor gambit to make him slip up and give them what he wanted. What it got them was an early dismissal from his office—and soon, a strongly worded letter of complaint to the managing officer of these two.

Harwood glared at the receding backs of their well tailored suits, an outside observer would have suspected his scowl addressed to stoic, invisible eyes beneath the sunglasses they, in rejection of politeness, refused to remove indoors. But inwardly, the Dean glared at himself and his own inability to predict this disruption of his calendar. The woman, whose name he did not receive, showed proper enough manners to pull his door closed behind her.

With their exit, the air left the room. He adjusted his tie, checked the collar of his shirt for the dampness of sweat, and carefully brushed some errant hairs back onto his head. It would not do to be less presentable. If he could control nothing about today, he would maintain his appearance.  As a man of later years, his hairline retreating like a shadow before the sun, and numerous grey hairs sprouting up, he regally resigned himself to eventual baldness and refused to hide it with a toupee. Events like this would do little for his stress, he suspected that if he felt the inclination the mirror would reveal a flush of new grey.

Harwood considered his tea. It had gone cold.

The Dean leaned forward and depressed a button on his intercom. “Ms. Blake.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Would you retrieve for me the contact information for one Mrs. Elaine Mercer? She’s a student in the department. I need to contact her urgently.”

“Of course, sir.” The line went dead with a rattle and a sound of muffled surprise as his receptionist greeted someone.

He waited in grim curiosity as he heard indecipherable words exchanged beyond his now-closed office door. The first voice, Ms. Blake’s, rose in concern to the thud of footfalls approaching, but cut off quickly at the shrill bark of a reply.

His door swung open without ceremony and admitted four people he never wanted to see together. The hounds of academic apocalypse: the three Engineering Department regents, including Chairwoman Renee Naughton, and her assistant.

Immediately behind them, bound up in a flustered rage, Mrs. Blake tried to push between them, but they wouldn’t budge, so she opted to go around them. Her gaze quested for eye contact with Harwood, but he carefully avoided it, and instead fixed his scowl on Chairwoman Naughton and her entourage.

“I am sorry, sir,” his secretary said. “I couldn’t stop them.”

Dean Harwood steeled himself and rose from his chair at the sight of his likely executioners. “Leave us, Ms. Blake, and close the door behind you.”

She did so without a word.

And then they were upon him: the Chairwoman stepped forward. She was a short woman who made up for her lack of stature with the size of her ambitions—a political 800-pound gorilla stuffed into a size-zero Jovani designer dress suit. Her fully-grey hair pinned back into a bun that rose just barely above the inclination of her head, behind a gaze that could level the most impertinent of men. Directly flanking her, the other two regents, folded their arms in silence, willing to let her break the silence with her iron prow before adding their own wind to the discussion, no doubt. And finally, bringing up the rear, the Chairwoman’s assistant, a reed thin, bespectacled strip of a girl who Harwood only knew as Wilder.

The Chairwoman herself opened the conversation with a broadside.

“Explain yourself, Richard.”

The shadow that crossed the perfect polish of his mahogany desk brought with its umbra the promise of disaster foretold as sure as an eclipse would to an ancient, savage tribe. The owner of the shadow certainly extinguished any hope that Harwood had for a sedate ending to his day. His mind worked furiously as surely further grey hairs sprouted ex nihilo from his head. The budget was down, certainly, but not enough to be a concern. This quarter’s grades across all students seemed to have slumped, which didn’t look good, but from what he understood it was felt to be a failing for the entire university and couldn’t be pinned on his department alone.

“This is in regard to what, Madam Chairwoman?”

“Your department has been admitting a lot more graduate students this year than would usually be permissible,” the Chairwoman said. She raised a flattened palm over her shoulder and her assistant placed a brown folder in it. Looking over the contents, she continued, “And these students—ASU grads, I might add—have not brought to our graduate program much prestige at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

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