Chapter 21 – The Shutters Conspiracy (Part I)

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Professor James Shutters stared nervously at the two FBI agents standing on his stoop, uncertain how to proceed from their introduction. He fidgeted with the ice water held in his clammy hands, condensation dripping down the sides. To cover his anxiety, he took a sip and drew out the moment.

“May we come in?” Agent Toller asked.

Agent Warren watched Shutters with eyes hidden behind sunglasses—he’d kept them on because he felt that they’d be more intimidating.

However, examining the fellow who opened the door he looked as if any further intimidation might blow him down. The man appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s, obviously the youngest of the group of professors they’d been interviewing recently. He wasn’t a tall man; Warren put him at about average height which set him several inches shorter than himself. Shutters’s button-down collared shirt looked slept-in, pinched about the collar, but his undershirt—white and visible poking from his undone first button—was crisp and new.

His sleeve buttons were also undone. Warren imagined that if given a chance, he’d find the man’s tie slung carelessly over his bed or across a dresser. Shutters had all the look of a man who had just relaxed after a hard day of impressing someone else and now he looked put-upon by the agents standing at his door and asking him to answer questions.

Warren removed his sunglasses and deposited them in his coat pocket. “It is a little bit warm out here,” he commented, “and I’m afraid I am a little overdressed for a lengthy discussion outside.”

Shutters paused for a moment and then caught himself.

“Of course, of course, officers,” he said and stepped out of the way to let them in the door. “I apologize for my rudeness. I am just—taken aback by your arrival. I’m not one to attract the attention of the authorities? Why did you say you were here?”

“We just have a few questions,” Toller said as she rounded on the tiles that led into the thickly furnished house.

Shutters had closed all the windows and had every drape pulled. A pervasive gloom settled over the interior that made the house seem cluttered and somewhat claustrophobic—a thin, sickly light emanated from what Warren guessed must be the kitchen area, but it was hard to tell through the thickly mounting shadows. As his eyes adjusted, he began to notice that the light flickered and warbled almost like a candle but also the sound of mumbled voices followed.

“Is there anyone else in the house?” Warren asked.

Shutters started for a moment—his penchant for surprise seemed limitless—and then shook his head. The glass of ice rattled in his hand as he balanced himself.

“Oh no, officer, that’s just the television. I could go turn it off,” he paused a moment with his fingers at the wall. “Now where is that light switch.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary—”

A moment later a dazzling light illuminated the room. The rooms immediately visible jumped into sharp relief revealing that in fact the house was somewhat cluttered. Each room had wall-to-wall shelves of books, piled high atop with bound documents, the tables and flat spaces were overflowing with curled up blueprints, books, and stacks of papers of almost every sort. On the table nearby—what might have been a living room except it had no room for a couch—the only open space had been dominated by the darkened screen of a laptop. Next to it sat another glass of water.

“I’m sorry, what were you saying?” Shutters said.

“Nothing. And you can call me Agent Warren if you like, we’re not police officers,” Warren said, rubbing his eyes against the sudden light. Of course, he meant that Shutters didn’t need to go turn off his TV. “What do you do, Professor Shutters?”

“I’m a professor of Applied Mathematics at ASU,” the man said automatically, scrunching his brows at the question. “I teach advanced dynamic systems mathematics and head up the Computational Modeling Lab… I’m sure that’s not one of the questions that you had for me.”

Agent Toller took the lead this time. “Are you familiar with Richard Harwood?”

“Of course I am,” Shutters said. “He’s the Dean of Computer Science and Engineering. What has that got to do with me?”

Toller pulled her flip book out of her back pocket and shuffled through to a page with notes on it. She scanned the scribbled lines and pursed her lips, when she found what she was looking for her eyes flickered back to Shutters.

“We spoke to Professor Whitaker’s wife yesterday and she seems to think that Harwood has it in for the both of you,” she said, “she named you and…”—she paused to read from the notebook—“one Professor Paul Linscott as being involved in some unmentioned project. What’s your relationship to these men?”

Shutters began to turn several shades of pale; he took another sip from his rapidly de-icing glass of water and licked his lips.

“I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” he said. “My association with Professors Harwood and Linscott is entirely above board. We have numerous duties together at the university and that puts us in contact with one another on a regular basis. As for Linscott, he’s a grant coordinator at the college and he’s on the Board of Trustees. I meet with him as do all team heads in order to go over finances.”

Toller paused for a moment after he trailed off but Shutters didn’t have anything to add.

“Nothing else?” she said.

“Nothing that I can think of,” he said.

She returned her gaze to the notebook.

“A few days ago you, Bertrand Whitaker, and Paul Linscott held a clandestine meeting with Richard Harwood in the back of a rented van,” Agent Toller said. Warren could see that he didn’t need dark sunglasses to intimidate the man, Kathy had managed it just with her notebook—which, now that he got a good look at it, contained the names of bestseller spy novels she hadn’t read yet.

“How do you know that?” Shutters took another drink of his ice water.

“Why are you so nervous, professor?” Toller said. “After all, as you said your relationships here are ‘all above board.’ I should let you know, we’re looking into Richard Hawood’s activities and Ms. Whitaker suggested that he may be causing you and these other professors some drama…?”

She let the question trail off at the end. As she spoke, Shutters shoulders slowly winched themselves up and he took several more drinks, nearly draining his glass—the man now looked as if he wished his ice water were instead a glass of something much stronger.

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