“Levit, lead pipe, Lorton.”
“Uhh, Lorton Hall.”
“Oh please. Cease your endless nattering and look at this.”
A shuffling of papers, individuals peeking at important and frustrating alibis, weapons and locations — these were the noises of a criminal investigation, though these sleuths held no formal training and no real office. However, the ghost town of TU’s campus provided ample room and a lack of curious ears, so the cast of six novice private eyes sat outside of the McFarlin Library, with downtown Tulsa to the west and the brick building to the east.
The first voice belonged to always dapper Vanessa Urling, a European immigrant who consistently dressed in tailored coats, slacks and shirts, and never seen without one of her trademark hats. Clarification was called for by the supremely intelligent Leon Erving, an individual with a tall, wiry body that belied a strength equal to that of his mind. Defending Janet Levit was Jane Leckta, a woman who shared her endless ambition. A stalwart defender of the future of TU, Leckta’s no-nonsense tone and accompanying eyeroll silenced her cohorts as much as it did her detractors.
When the acclaimed professor Brian Hosmer mysteriously vanished, the leadership at TU became worried about the negative impact a full-fledged police investigation would have on their already shaky reputation. They decided to create their own think-tank composed of the best and brightest the university had to offer, with the promise of vast riches to the individual that solved the case first.
While all of the chosen individuals excelled academically, that did not correlate to their personal lives. Jimmy Hanlon, for example, a student in the now-defunct philosophy department, criticized Levit heavily, which brought him into conflict with Ms. Jane Leckta on several occasions — one of which required a hospital visit after Leckta sliced Hanlon’s face with her fingernails. One can see another case in which Derrick Dierly, a noted Honors scholar, faced off with the mysterious Bill no-last-name-given.
As a mind of unlimited inquiry, Derrick attempted to solve the puzzle presented by Bill, searching out his last name, necessitating an illegal dip into the student’s personal files and incidentally releasing the knowledge that Bill had no last name. He didn’t have any living parents or family members either, come to find out.
These fractured relationships built the foundation on which this investigation began, leading to six individual files full of incomplete information instead of one unified front. Whether they wanted it or not, they stepped into a war with one another, forced to compare notes to find a culprit. Their suspect list was limited by the amount of professors on campus, as well as the weapons, considering TU made an admirable effort to clamp down on firearms and other obvious tools of death. However, one handgun did make its way on campus, discovered by Jimmy Hanlon in Chapman Hall’s basement. Information wasn’t cheap, and the promised wealth by the TU board made their mouths water. Conjecture flew, with students attempting to pry tidbits of info from one another with educated — or intentionally uneducated — deductions.
With each proposed culprit, location and weapon, each of the six detectives began slowly piecing the clues together. Vanessa Urling focused on the cause of death, accumulating a veritable fortune of circumstantial pieces of evidence, but her decision to isolate the weapon left her vulnerable to the ministrations of Leon Erving, who dedicated himself to limiting the number of possible locations where the crime could have been committed. Just Bill predated such an individual, acquiring a general knowledge of all three areas and limiting the potential combinations thereof; however, he was constantly on edge due to Leckta’s insistence that he was definitely, indubitably incorrect about his findings. Her confidence and defense of Levit told Derrick that she must know Levit was guilty, but that the interim president’s ardent defender knew nothing else about the case. He decided to press this issue indirectly.
“Jimmy, where did you find that pistol again? Chapman basement?”
Jimmy’s boisterous voice carried his reply. “You are correct. I found it near the boiler room, stuck in between a couple of pieces of metal.”
Cutting through the loud answer with a soft voice like steel covered with silk, Vanessa interjected, “We’ve already established that the pistol was there. Why do you keep insisting on this?”
“It makes no sense to leave the murder weapon out in the open, like the lead pipe, so hiding the pistol in the boiler room, behind a locked door, tells me the culprit had a master key.”
“That’s quite enough, Derrick.” Voice cold, Leckta awarded him with a withering glare. “You can come out and say it. I have nothing to hide.”
“Wow, what a convincing rhetorical tactic you’ve taken, Madame Bootlicker!” Derrick punctuated his comment with an impressively artistic bow.
“Your major is as useless as your insinuations, and I am not a bootlicker.”
“Then why do you keep defending the most likely perpetrator? She has motive, ability and the wherewithal to kill.” While Leckta was an ice queen in her own right, the deadly look on Derrick’s face could have made him the murderer.
“What motive! Have you gone mad?” Standing now, Leckta seemed tempted to smack the Honors scholar.
Derrick didn’t even bat an eye, retorting, “The university is going through a budget crisis, and paying a professor to keep teaching or get lost costs money. Who else would want Hosmer gone? He was liked by his colleagues, maintained good relationships with his students and had no other enemies. Who else would want to kill him?”
“That doesn’t make sense! Levit wants to save this university, not end up behind bars, so why would she blatantly kill a tenured professor?”
“Why would she not tell the police what happened?” Bill’s — just Bill’s — normally monotone voice displayed a sense of heat. “Why would the board have us try to figure out what happened? We aren’t detectives; we don’t even like each other, so why force us together?”
Multiple individuals attempted to fill the silence that followed, but Leon, as usual, leaned forward, making it obvious that he wanted to answer but was taking the time to choose his words very carefully.
“I suggest … that Leckta share her evidence … which she clearly believes … to the rest of us … so that we can cross the interim president off all of our lists.”
Such a reasonable request, as well as the multiple minutes it took Leon to construct, took the wind out of his compatriots’ sails. Each person reset their posture, Leckta giving a huff, Hanlon removing his hands from the table and settling his weight back and Derrick stopped staring daggers at Leckta. Bill, well, Bill just kinda sat there, like normal.
Eventually, Leckta sighed, looking defeated, and opened her mouth.
“The reason I know why Levit couldn’t have been here to commit the crime is because she was with my family on the day Hosmer disappeared.”
A moment of silence, then chaos.
“So you are a bootlicker!”
“Derrick, is that all you care about!”
“No, but it’s nice to know the rumors are true.”
“You INSUFFERABLE piece of human waste. You should be hap-”
“Stop it!” When did Bill, just Bill, become a mediator? “We need to solve this case and then we can go back to hating one another. Let’s just share our info and never talk to one another again.”
“Okay,” Hanlon’s voice was the first to speak. “I know for sure Dr. Howland was in class at the time of the disappearance. I talked to multiple students that have him and they all had the same story.”
“Well, Dr. Dutton had an out-of-class Honors seminar that I attended about the same time,” Derrick’s voice was unusually sheepish. “I actually skipped Howland’s class to go.”
“That’s two more down.” Just Bill looked around. “I have nothing on the list of suspects, but I did look into Hosmer’s movements that night. Witnesses saw him slowly wandering around the place, looking at each building, but that’s it. No one noted anything suspicious aside from his strange pace.”
“Couldn’t’ve been Udwin. He had office hours and I talked to him about my class schedule — he is my academic advisor, after all.” Vanessa sat her hat upon the table. “What do you have, Leon?”
A multitude of moments passed by as Leon constructed his response. Some people speak as if they were building Rome in a single day, without care for the longevity of the work. Leon, however, built his cities out of marble, not stone.
“Lars, I mean, Dr. Engle gave a talk on Arthurian legend that night. A trusted friend of mine happened to see him in Zink at the time of Hosmer’s disappearance.”
A moment of confusion grew into a long silence that rivalled the moment before Leon spoke, with student looking at student as they all slowly realized their pool of suspects had credible alibis.
“That … That’s all the professors that were on campus that night.” Vanessa looked shaken, gripping the top of her hat, slightly crumpling the fine cloth.
Jimmy Hanlon, obviously disturbed and forcing a strong face, added, “Without a murderer, the weapon and location don’t matter. What do we do?”
His voice broke, and the attempt to portray a sense of confidence failed, leaving Leckta to try again. Voice cold as ice, she stated, “We must look at alternative possibilities.”
“What other possibilities do we have?” Derrick shoved aside his folder of clues, papers spilling out. “A classic and extremely clean murder had to take place. We have no witnesses saying that they’ve seen Hosmer since that day, and no one has offered a reasonable explanation as to why.”
“Considering campus is as tight as the university’s budget, the murderer could only be someone with keys, and all of the other staff were sent home by that time in the evening. It has to be a professor.” Each failed detective had made the same assumption that Leon had just stated, which made logical sense as long as there was a murder committed. However, how could someone be murdered without a murderer or a messy crime scene?
This refutation of their a priori statement dealt a blow to their collective intelligence, and many heads looked away from the gaze of one another in embarrassment. Then Vanessa cocked her head, a sudden possibility forming in her mind.
“Leon, what did you say about the university’s budget?”
“Well, uh, it’s on the rocks and the rack, you know, with all the budget cuts.”
“It is true,” Leckta sounded almost ashamed, “which is why we’ve had to be so … drastic in our restructuring.”
Never one to miss an opening to criticize the university leadership, Hanlon contributed to the conversation by saying, “That’s one way to say it, bootlicker.”
“Did you pick that term up from Derrick, your fellow useless major?”
“Stop! What do you mean, Vanessa?” Just Bill just doing just Bill things.
“It’s just that … Yes, the university would like to cut costs, and paying people to teach is certainly a cost, but so is giving them a retirement package.What if there was a way for Hosmer to disappear from the university without requiring payment?”
“Yes, that is what we would call ‘murder.’”
Leon furrowed his brow, deep in concentration. “What was Hosmer’s focus, again?”
Just Bill volunteered the info. “Native American history and policy.”
“Didn’t OSU recently open a program focusing on American history?” Vanessa’s recollection was faint, like the majority of her comrades, but Leckta, the resident bootlick- individual familiar with the university, stepped in.
“Yeah, they did. What does this have to … Oh. I see.”
“Are you saying that Hosmer was recruited away?” The idea had hooked Hanlon, and he found himself agreeing with the idea more and more.
Vanessa met his eyes and gestured, asking “Why stay at a university that sees your department as useless? We’ve heard the same idea from students, so why would professors be any different?”
“It would certainly explain the lack of a crime scene.” Leon’s look was one of gentle surprise, even warmth, and he leaned forward. “And our suspects’ airtight alibis.”
“What was it Bill said about those people that saw Hosmer?” Jimmy continued positing, “He was just wandering around campus?”
“Yep,” Bill simply replied, “They said he kept stopping and looking at the buildings.”
“What if he was saying goodbye?” Though not a sentimental person, Eleckta seemed touched by the love the old professor showed for his university, his home.
While each person said their own line, they were united in thought, puzzle pieces clicking together in a beautiful symphony.
“That has to be the answer!” Vanessa had a full grin on her face, and both her smile and triumphant tone broke the clouds of their mutual apathy.
“We … did it. Together.” Leckta was beaming as well, looking at her new friends.
“I guess. But we would’ve been done sooner if you hadn’t fought so hard to defend Levit, bootlicker.”
“Derrick, you’re an asshole.”
“That wasn’t even me this time! It was Jimmy!”
Well, maybe not friends, but certainly acquaintances. Not people you would give your phone number to, but maybe your social media.