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Chapter 08

The next morning I go into the office a little early, wanting to catch up on the strategic plan stuff before I get sidelined by anything else. I chug away at that until noon, getting the thing in pretty good shape, but still wondering a little what version I’ll bring to bear come Tuesday. I’m just about to find somewhere to eat lunch when the phone rings.“Advancement, Neal,” I say.“Hi Neal,” Marisa says in a sort of tentative voice, “this is Marisa, remember. We talked about ice cubes yesterday.”“Of course I remember. Something wrong?”“Well, I called Ned this morning and something terrible has happened.”

My hands go cold while I find myself thinking about how comfortable I was in Neal’s office the other day. “What?”

“Well, somebody killed Steve,” she says. And I fumble around for a second trying to think of who she is talking about.

“The squid.”

“The squid.”

“Why, . . .” I start, thinking to myself how anyone could kill a squid as strong and quick as the one I tangled with that day. “Why would anyone kill a squid?”

“Ned’s wondering the same thing. And so is everybody. Although we are having a tough time interesting the campus police in following up on it.”

“Hmm.”

“And actually Ned has called the town police, too. And they are nowhere to be found. They just haven’t responded.”

“So, how—and I feel a little insensitive even asking this, but how did they do it and how does Ned know it was murder, if that’s the right word here.”

“It was quite a scene, I’m afraid. Ned is pretty cool about it, considering he has spent so much time with him and thinking about communicating with him. I suppose he knew that Steve’s kind only live two or three years. But whoever it was brought a sort of harpoon and speared him with it. Then they pulled him out of the tank and dissected him right there on the floor.”

“Good God.”

“Yeah.”

“So was it some kids, then? A fraternity prank kind of thing?”

“Apparently they took his ink gland. I don’t know, but Ned says it is not so easy to find the thing. These people apparently knew where to look, at least. Doesn’t mean they were squid experts. Does mean that it took a little planning.”

“That’s so bizarre. Does he have any enemies?”

“Steve?”

“No, Ned.”

“Just a little joke. Ned doesn’t really make waves. I mean, I’d never heard of him before. I’ve seen him around, but I’ve never really heard his name around campus before. A couple of students were here helping us clean up, and they just adore him. And they’re undergraduates, so it’s not like he’s paying them to like him. How could anyone hate Ned?”

“I don’t know. I’m just trying to figure it out. So he’s handling it okay, considering?”

“Pretty much. I asked him about his research and he got interested in explaining it to me. I don’t understand any of the communications stuff, but it is interesting. He was explaining it all to me when it occurred to him that he should check the last few minutes of tape to see if he could see anyone attacking Steve.”

“He see anything?”

“No, couldn’t see the attacker, because the cameras just weren’t set up that way. But he did find something interesting. He’s reviewing Steve’s last few hours right now, and it is some pretty weird stuff. It is almost as if the poor thing used up all of his ink anyway sometime early this morning. It is almost as if he was terrified of an imminent attack since about midnight last night.”

“This place. I’ll tell you. So you were interested in the ink. Still interested?”

“Well it is certainly strange that someone would take it from a ‘dangerous’ animal when you can just go out and buy it.”

“You can buy that stuff?”

“That’s what Ned claims. Art supply places, apparently. And you can get it at certain restaurant supply houses in an adulterated form. And it does have some interesting and complicated chemical properties. And some of the molecules are small enough to do some weird dances while the stuff is dispersing. Ned claims that some of the designs—he calls them symbols—start to repeat on the tape. I don’t know. I’m not seeing it.”

“Hmm. Well, give Ned my best. Thanks for calling to tell me. I’ll try to drop by later and pay my respects.”

“Oh, also, Ned wanted me to ask you to tell Scott.”

“Scott Peterson?”

“Yeah. Ned is really trying to piece something together, mostly because he is angry, but he is probably also throwing himself into this project because he doesn’t want to grieve. You know.”

“Because he’s a guy.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll give Scott a call. Give Ned my best.”

“Will do.”

I hang up and think to myself that college campuses always made me feel safe. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to become a professor, one of the reasons I wanted to find a way to continue working on college campuses even after I decided that teaching was something took a lot more out of me than I was willing to give.

And I’ve always felt this way, comfortable and safe on college campuses, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Most campuses are actually slightly more dangerous than the outside world. They are packed with teenagers with raging hormones who are usually able to get a hold of alcohol and many are not directly under adult supervision for the first time in their lives. Campuses can be very dangerous places. I hate it a lot when that myth, one of the enduring myths by which I lead my life, is shattered. It always takes a while for me to piece it back together again.

I pick up the faculty directory and look for Scott’s number, pick up the phone again and dial it. But it goes directly to voice mail. I hate to leave a message that sad and weird so I decide I should try again later.

When I get back from lunch I run into the Exec, who’s straddling the hallway to my office. I think briefly about trying to step on his foot and go to one side of him, but even though he is not looking at me directly I can tell that he wants to talk to me. I just have to make the first move. And I have to make some sort of fake smile like I’m happy to see him while I make obeisant gestures of some sort and the whole thing is a little wearying, frankly. Somehow I manage about half of these respectful litter rituals, but it is enough for him to save face or whatever it is that he’s trying to do.

“Come on in,” he says, going into his office, dispensing with the courtesies of asking if I have a moment, but in such a way as to brook no argument.

I follow, and he gestures to a seat on the other side of his immense desk with its spotless glass top over ugly and cheap mahogany veneer. It’s only the second time I’ve been in his little pleasure palace and I find it just as stifling as the first time. He’s got his own little kitchen and conference table and storage room, and even a little living-room area with two loveseats and a coffee table. The office is bigger by far than the Chancellor’s office, or any other office I have ever been in. And it is completely spotless, sterile even. I find myself wondering how he can get any work done without having to wipe fingerprints off something. Then it occurs to me that if you redefine the word “work” to include the wiping of fingerprints, one would never, theoretically have to stop working, not if one was comfortable cleaning fingerprints for $150,000 per year.

“You can stop looking for funding for Professor Peterson,” he says, and I get chills, because it makes me think about Steve’s death, somehow.

“Okay,” I say, hesitantly, hoping that somehow he’ll feel compelled to tell me why I should stop looking. But he doesn’t, just sits there with this ugly little sneer on his face. “Did he find the money?” I finally ask.

“No, I did,” he says.

“Oh, that’s great. He was really looking forward to the trip.”

“Whatever. And when he gets back, don’t help him again either.”

“Umm, may I ask why?”

He stares at me with the little grey rat-like eyes. “Somebody in upper administration has taken an active dislike, ‘sall I can say for now.” He seems to think he’s in on some sort of secret. And I find that I don’t want him to think that I care, all of a sudden. So I just nod my head. “So, tell me. What was his little trip all about, anyway?”

“He just wants to do some research on the Lewis and Clark thing. You know, the Corps of Discovery stuff. And he was hoping to visit some relatives out there, too, I think.” I hope that I wasn’t supposed to keep that part secret. It seems so much more realistic when I add the personal component to the lie about the true purpose of his trip.

“Any idea why the administration didn’t like him?” he asks, clearly annoyed that I might have some information that he doesn’t.

“No. I just me the guy. Why don’t you ask him?”

“Can’t. He left this morning. It was part of the deal.”

“Deal?”

“I took some money out of our discretionary account to pay for the trip. Now I have to think about how to justify that one as well.”

I nod again, having no idea what he’s talking about by that point, but he seems to be hinting that he had had to do this twice recently. I’m hoping that somehow I can get out of his office soon, because I don’t want to have to spend time at a deposition later recounting the conversation.

“Anyway, keep this all quiet,” he says, getting up from his chair.

“Oh, I won’t say anything, . . .” I promise. I just leave out the last part of the sentence, which is something like “to sneaky rodents like you.” The guy smiles, because apparently one can’t hear ellipses, even with the finely tuned senses of a Norwegian Brown.

It is really strange that they would force Scott to take his research trip early. I mean somebody presumably will have to cover his classes while he’s gone. And he was hoping for some skiing, but I don’t even know if there’s anything falling on lookout pass yet. And he wanted to visit family, who were presumably expecting him for Thanksgiving. Probably they won’t be that excited to see him early. I don’t think they were close relatives. And he certainly had no time to let them know he was going to be early.

I decide to call Ned and get Scott’s cell phone number, partly because I want to carry out my obligation to Ned, but partly because I want to find out what they hell is going on.

“Hello,” I say to the person answering Ned’s phone, clearly not Ned, “is Professor Kolbe there?”“Who shall I say is calling?”“It’s Neal, from the Advancement Office.”

“I thought so. Hi, Neal, this is Marisa.”

“Oh, you’re still there, huh? Working on the ink?”

“Sort of. Is it something I can help with, or do you need Ned. He’s a little engaged in something at the moment.”

“Um, actually I was just calling to see if he had Scott’s cell phone number, because Scott is out of town on a research trip right now.”

“Hang on.”

I wait for a minute or two until somebody picks the phone back up.

“Hey, Neal,” it’s Ned’s voice this time. “Marisa says Scott took off. I thought he had a full teaching load this semester. What’s the deal?”

“I don’t really know. My psycho boss funded him out of some slush fund and they asked him to go immediately instead of waiting for the holiday weekend.”

“So he’s in Kellogg?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” Ned makes more fumbling sounds with the phone and gives me a cell number.

“I could probably call him myself, though, now that I think of it. I just didn’t want to talk about what happened. You know.”

“I don’t mind calling him. I sort of want to know what is going on between him and my boss, so . . .”

“Okay. You might try calling him before he gets too deep in the hills, though. Unless he’s right on the highway that cell number’s not going to do you any good. Much better to get him before he leaves the airport. He fly into Bonners’ Ferry?”

“No, Moscow. He wanted them to think he was doing research on the Lewis and Clark stuff.”

“Man, if they even knew him it would be obvious that he would never dig into that stuff.”

“I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Thanks, man. You take it easy.”

I try Scott’s cell phone immediately after I hang up and find that it goes directly into voicemail. So I leave a message, but not about Steve being killed. I don’t know if the guy is sentimental about mollusks, so I just leave my own cell number so I’m more flexible with the three hour difference. I think it’s three hours, or is northern Idaho on Mountain time? I can’t seem to remember anymore.

I go home a little early, because I just can’t seem to think anymore. And it is Friday, which is nice, although I am not really close enough to putting this strategic plan together.

Friday is often the day of the week that people look forward to the most. Most places you work on Friday but you’re really not thinking about what you’re doing so much as thinking about the weekend. With a new job, however, Friday can often be the worst day of the week. Unless you are happy about the way things are going, Friday can seem like the beginning of a long period where you can’t work but it is all you think about. You keep thinking of a way out of it. And you think about how you might approach things differently on Monday. And you think about all of the things you have to do when the working week starts up again. I tried desperately to shut all this stuff out of my mind before I got home, but it kept creeping in to my thoughts. And my wife knew what was happening and tried to help distract me. But when I’m in that kind of a mood the distractions can only heighten the anxiety. Distractions just make me feel worse.

She knows me well enough now to see it coming and offered to take over with the kid the rest of the evening.

Even that only seemed to add to my anxiety. It reminded me that if things didn’t work out, I’d be back to being an unemployed stay-at-home dad. And that made me feel bad because I should view that as an opportunity to spend valuable quality time with my kid. But that’s not the way it seems to work. Unless things are going well on the job everything else in my life seems to fall apart. Which is more pressure, really.

I try to get into a novel I’m reading but I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over, no idea what it means. I try to lay on my back in the dark and just relax, but I can’t seem to shake the question. If it weren’t for the cost of living out here maybe I’d feel a little more comfortable simply quitting and trying for something else. I wonder if it is even the weirdness of the University itself. Maybe it’s the town or New England, to some extent. And if the people were a little more welcoming it might not seem so bad. And in terms of hostility, the Executive Director of the Advancement Office is a sort of pinnacle achievement. The place seems bizarre and violent and creepy, but I’ve been in creepy and strange places before. This exec guy just sucks all the remaining light out of it.

I’m beginning to work my way around to simply sucking it up, soldiering on, when I hear a soft knock on the bedroom door. “It’s somebody named Scott,” she says. “For you,” she adds with that little questing lilt at the end.

“Got it,” I say and go to the kitchen to get the phone. The stupid apartment came with only one phone jack.

“Hello, Scott.”

“Hey, got your message. What’s up? You find me some travel money?”

“Seems like you got it some other way.”

“Yeah, the strange way. Your dumb boss had his secretary, . . . Charlotte?”

“Yeah.”

“Charlotte, call me and find out when the soonest flight out of town was. And then she calls the airline and buys me the ticket. I barely had time to find somebody to watch my cat.”

“Any idea what the hell they are trying to get you out of town for?”

“I know exactly why. So is that why you called?”

“No, I promised I’d get in touch with you to give you some bad news, I’m afraid.”

“Well.”

“Um, you know Ned’s prize squid, Steve?”

“I know Steve well. He tried to drown me once, the bastard.”

“Well somebody snuck into the lab last night and killed him. Then they dissected him on a lab table.”

“That’s some twisted stuff, there. Student prank?”

“Seems unlikely, or at least Ned thinks it unlikely.”

“He Okay?”

“Yeah, he’s taking it pretty well, pouring himself into trying to figure out what’s going on. They apparently cut him up to remove his ink gland. And they got it. So they knew their way around a squid, to some extent, anyway.”

“You are probably seeing some other strange stuff happening around town, too.”

“Yes. I’m new, though, so sometimes I can’t tell if these things are normal or not.”

“What are you having trouble with, then?”

“Well earlier this week I saw some birds doing strange acrobatics and there were a bunch of owls that were acting strangely and then died the next day all in one spot. Then the campus seems deserted all of a sudden. And many of the people who remain seem tired. Some say they’re not sleeping well, dreaming weird dreams all of the time and it’s keeping them up.”

“Sounds about like I thought. I don’t live in town, and the only people I’ve socialized with at the University are Ned and another couple that also live in another town. I’ve got a theory about what’s going on, but it is not something that you’re going to like hearing.”

“I’m sure it’s not. But I’d much rather know, still.”

“Quillan, the guy I came out here to see, was really spooked when I showed up. He was really, I don’t know, alarmed looking. He seems to be pretty sane, and he seems to have made a nice little life for himself out here, cozy little house in the woods, and all. But he got this haunted look when I told him what I was here for.”

“Which is?”

“Which is that there is all this strange stuff going on and I want to know what he knows.”

“So. . . .”

“So he poured us a couple of drinks and sat there for a bit at his kitchen table. Then he got right down to business. He told me that he had suspected that the University was built right on top of the remains of a settlement of what he calls the ‘Old Ones.’ Did you ever read any H.P. Lovecraft? This guy says that some of that stuff in his horror books is based on fact. I don’t have time right now to explain the whole thing to you, and barely understand it myself, but the gist of it is that the excavation for the elevator shaft might have uncovered one of these things.”

“So they live down underground, and the dig pulled one up. And this is causing all of this strange stuff to happen?”

“Well they don’t exactly live underground. He says that they had built a civilization, this would have been more than three or four million years ago, and that they were under attack from some other bizarre alien race or something. And they went dormant somewhere. Apparently they are incredibly resilient. They can last hundreds of thousands of years, looking like a dried-out husk, or a mummy or something. And then, if they somehow get around other creatures and a source of food, they can regenerate themselves.”

“So what does it want, how do we get rid of it, is it a bad thing?”

“Apparently very bad, at least according to Quillan. But I went into town to take care of a few things and call you, so I don’t know the whole story yet. Then when I got into town I got your message.”

“Why were you calling me?”

“I need you to get me some of the books from the rare book room—as soon as you can. We’ll be in a better position to deal with this thing if we can access those things.”

“Deal with this thing.”

“Yeah, Quillan has been fearing this happening since the 1960s. He always sat on University building committees and discouraged any projects that involved much digging. He’s seen strange stuff on campus, too. But I told him about the last couple of weeks and he says it is the same sort of thing but amplified, like this “Old One” is stronger, or nearer.”

“How does it make this stuff happen?”

“Dunno. He says it projects its thoughts or something. The books he read were so mysterious and had been translated four times before he got to look at them in Latin. So it’s like playing telephone with dead people.”

That makes me think of Lisa and her weird little project, but it doesn’t seem relevant to the task at hand, so I don’t say anything except “Okay, do I need a key for the room?”

“Yeah, it’s in the only copy of “The Market Revolution” in the stacks, tucked into an envelope glued to the back cover.”

“That’s safe, at least. So, what, do I mail them to you?”

“I don’t know. Since tomorrow’s Saturday why don’t you just call me when you’ve got them and hopefully I’ll know more. Maybe we can figure something out over the phone.”

“Oh, um, which books?”

“Jesus. Got me spooked, too. They don’t have anything written on the spines. There are three books all in leather. If you are walking in they are directly in front of you on the second shelf down in the middle of the bookcases. But they are behind the books on that shelf, lying flat so they can’t be seen.”

“Sneaky again. Library opens at . . .”

“Ten O’clock on Saturdays. I’ll be in town waiting for your call. Thanks, Neal. I’m sorry you got roped into this.”

“It’s okay. This is the sort of thing that grantwriters do all the time. We just keep it quiet.”

“Give my condolences to Ned. Talk to you tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

And somehow I feel better about things. There’s no way for me to explain it. Maybe because I’m trying to understand something and helping people. Who knows.

Take me to Chapter IX

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