Typical, William Dougal thought. How bloody inconvenient.
He was standing just inside the door of his supervisor’s room in the History Department. Three yards away, a corpulent, tweed-covered shape sprawled on the oatmeal carpet, to the right of the desk. The eyes and the tongue protruded from its bloated face towards Dougal in the doorway.
No doubt about it: the life had been sucked out of Doctor Gumper. Its absence left a chilly vacuum in the overheated atmosphere.
Dougal felt lightheaded and detached. Don’t panic. It must have been a heart-attack, he told himself; Gumper had always been pink with comfortable living and irritation.
The angle-poise lamp on the desk was switched on, spilling a puddle of light over the body. Did that mean that Gumper had died recently? Probably not—the lamp would have been on for hours, for the room was badly-lit and the dull February day outside had been drab and overcast.
Suddenly Dougal caught sight of a detail he had missed before. The light was glinting on a filament of nylon which dangled from Gumper’s neck, to the left of his Adam’s apple, down to the floor. Dougal’s mind clouded with the monstrous necessity of believing what he was seeing.
Not a heart-attack: murder. He grappled with the idea, but it refused to succumb. Why should Gumper be killed—a dogmatic lecturer in paleography, whose only distinction was a belief that the proper study of mankind was a medieval script called Caroline Minuscule? And why did he, Dougal, have to be the one to find the body?
The nylon dug deep into the flesh of the neck. Dougal could trace the line of its passage. A garotte made the whole business so much stranger, he thought, as shivers shot through him. It suggested a degree of professionalism or premeditation on the part of the killer, which didn’t tie in with a domestic crime of passion committed by a jealous wife, a disgruntled student or a competitive colleague.
A killer was the natural corollary to Gumper’s corpse; he had forgotten that until now. Fear took over, and his mouth went dry, as if the moisture there had been scooped up by a powerful vacuum cleaner. The symptom was almost reassuring in the familiarity of what it portended. He kicked the door open—it was still ajar, as it had been when he came in—and stumbled across the linoleum of the passage to the lavatory opposite. He knelt like a supplicant before the bowl—he noticed gratefully that it was clean—closed his eyes and lost his lunch.
He pulled the chain and washed his hands, scalding them with the hot water in his nervousness. He dried them on the roller towel, feeling faintly surprised that routine should assert itself at such a time: toilet training must go deep.
The future stretched uninvitingly before him. What the hell was he going to do? Decision-making was not his forte and he had a horror of situations which forced him to make them rapidly. He looked at the pale face in the mirror and it stared back at him, blank with uncertainty.
The police? He imagined how it would go—walking down to the Departmental Secretary’s office; trying to explain what had happened, which would take time because at first she would be more interested in doing her nails and then she would think he was trying to make a fool of her; the typist would gawp; they would ring the police and wait uncomfortably together before and after they came; there would be pots of tea, awkward silences, questions and statements, all of which would probably drag on into tomorrow.
Dougal swerved away from this unpleasant scenario. With his hand on the doorknob of the lavatory, he considered the alternative—a discreet withdrawal, which would inconvenience no one (certainly not Gumper) and save him a ruined evening. It could hardly affect the police’s investigations. Nobody had seen him slipping away. And Doctor Gumper’s desk diary would support the innocent deception, for it contained no record of an appointment with Dougal today—the arrangement had been vague: that he should drop in at some point before Friday with the transcription he should have done last week, prepared to discuss the general progress of his work. To go now would be like seeing someone shoplifting and doing nothing about it. It wasn’t important.
The thought of Amanda hardened his resolve. She was doing the cooking tonight—beef Stroganoff at Dougal’s request and under protest. Missing dinner could prove worse than tactless, whatever the reason.
His briefcase, though—that was still in Gumper’s room. The thought of having to go back tempted him to change his mind and face the lesser evils of the Secretary and the police. And what about fingerprints?…but no, he’d only touched the door on the outside. Anyway, he had been there perfectly legitimately last week (Well, Mr Dougal, your contribution to…um…scholarship this term hardly constitutes an auspicious beginning to the New Year’s…um… labour.) But perhaps the police could estimate the age of finger- prints by the degree of clarity they had, or the presence of others overlaying them.
Some part of his mind, which had nothing to do with the semi-rational assessment of pros and cons, made its judgment: go, while it was still possible. He hadn’t touched the doorknob… thank God the door had been left ajar…by the murderer.
Another factor supported his decision to retreat: he hadn’t liked Doctor Gumper, a balloon-shaped man with colourless eyes behind sandy eyelashes, inflated to bursting point with the unstable gas of his own pomposity. Gumper’s book-lined study reflected the man he had been—it was a cocoon of stale air where it was impossible to imagine anyone laughing or crying. It was on the first floor of the History Department, but Dougal had always thought of it as the concrete bunker beneath the ivory tower. Doctor Gumper, revelling in his status as an expert, had not been content to patronise kindly those with inferior intellectual attain- ments. His sarcasm had been gratuitously unpleasant; he had used his complacency as a weapon of offence. His muted spite hinted at failed ambition—a professorship, perhaps, or even a CBE for services to scholarship.
Dougal realised with a slight jolt, as old assumptions cracked like ice in the sudden thaw of new certainties, that he was really rather grateful to the person who had killed Doctor Gumper, despite the problems he had caused. It would be a relief to have to find a less abrasive supervisor.
One thought nagged him, though—what if someone had seen him in the building this evening? It was unlikely, he knew, but he decided to forestall the possibility of suspicion by going up to the Graduate Common-Room on the second floor before leaving the college.
He slid back the bolt on the lavatory door and braced himself for the regrettable necessity of going back to Gumper’s room. In the corridor, he stood listening for a second, holding his breath. A typewriter was clattering somewhere below—from the Secretary’s office?—like hailstones in slow motion on a tin roof. He heard a laugh which he recognised upstairs—it grated on his ears: Philip Primrose must be making the Common-Room unfit for human habitation again. Too bad.
Dougal shouldered open Gumper’s door and stepped quietly into the room.
His brief-case lay on the chair between the desk and the door. He looked at it for an instant as if he had never seen it before, noticing its brown shabbiness, the stitching in an advanced stage of dissolution and the leather torn and scuffed.
He looked involuntarily past it and realised for the first time that Gumper’s body was surrounded by a sea of scattered papers. He bent closer—most of them were photographs or photostats of manuscripts, mainly written in Caroline Minuscule. Prospective plates for Gumper’s forthcoming book? All periods of the script seemed to be represented, from its blotchy origins in Merovingian cursive to the intimations of angularity in Protogothica. Better not touch anything.
Dougal shrugged. It was none of his business and it was stupid to stay here. He picked up the briefcase and edged back towards the door. He was glad to discover that, while the sight of Gumper was hardly attractive, it no longer made him retch. Progress of a sort.
He pulled the door to behind him, but didn’t close it; everything must be as he had found it. Moving softly and swiftly, he headed for the stairs. The clock on the half-landing said a quarter past five—shit, the whole thing could only have taken two or three minutes.
The passage on the second floor was identical to the one below—a bare expanse of linoleum with half a dozen dirty cream doors opening off it; like the one below, it was also empty. Dougal slipped into the Graduate Common-Room—the door at the end. It was large and shabbily-furnished; scuffed armchairs stood in clusters, flanked by severely rectangular coffee tables on the resiliently grey carpet. A hot drinks machine loomed uninvitingly in the corner by the window. It produced hot water for its clients, offering a generous choice of six shades of brown. On good days it provided plastic cups as well. The walls, painted with the regulation pastel green of the college, had been partially covered with glowing travel posters depicting the sort of places which were generally better in two dimensions than in three or four.
The room was not full. Philip Primrose, who seemed to live in the Department, was effortlessly dominating a little group in the corner by the hot water machine. A few individuals sat elsewhere, sheltering behind newspapers—protective screens, thought Dougal, and counted two Guardians, one Times and one defiant Daily Mirror. Primrose glanced up in mid-sentence, as if scenting fresh prey, but no one else even looked at him.
Dougal walked casually to the notice board, his muscles feeling as taut as piano wires. It was so tempting to give way to the urge to confide: oh, by the way, someone’s gone and strangled Gumper downstairs. He pretended to read the small ads on the board instead. Usually they fascinated him: they were peepshows on other people’s lives, glimpses of alien mythologies—‘Vegetarian (Vegan) non-smoking Feminist seeks flat share with similar…’; ‘Will the person who stole my briefcase from the library PLEASE act like a rational & responsible adult…’
Today, though, while his eyes were on the board, his attention was elsewhere. Had the killer been looking for something among that jumble of papers on Gumper’s floor? Had he found it? Did its presence (or absence) provide the reason for Gumper’s death? Perhaps Gumper had lived a double life.
Dougal forced his mind away from the problems downstairs. With luck, they wouldn’t be his. But he wasn’t safe yet and he couldn’t afford to ignore his surroundings.
Philip Primrose was telling an anecdote about Oxford, his favourite subject (apart from himself ), which involved much slapping of his plumply tubular thighs. Dougal had no need to listen or to look. He knew the story and could visualise the way it was being told and received—Primrose’s audience (a good one: four people) was like habitual television viewers, watching and hearing without concentration, almost without interest: a vacuum was being filled, and that was sufficient.
Dougal turned away from the notice board and sat heavily down in a nearby armchair, which a previous occupant had angled away from the rest of the room. He found himself facing a poster showing sunset over the Atlas Mountains—a surreal landscape with a romantically clothed Arab perched on a camel in the foreground, brandishing a musket invitingly at the camera. Underneath, the caption read, MOROCCO: REALM OF TIMELESS BEAUTY; someone had added a comma with a red felt-tip pen, and the words BAKSHEESH & BUGGERY. He wished he could be there, away from that disgusting object downstairs which had forced its way into his life.
He opened his briefcase on the assumption that it was better to look as if he was doing something. It contained a green envelope file with his notes, an eight-by-ten photograph of a page of manuscript, which he should have returned, together with his transcription, to Doctor Gumper last Thursday, a library book— Sandys’ History of Classical Scholarship in the Middle Ages, Volume 1, and a green-jacketed Penguin crime novel.
Without hesitation, he chose the latter. His place was marked by a photograph of Amanda. He tried to read, but Gumper in memory and Primrose in actuality kept intervening. Dougal glanced at his watch: seventeen minutes past five; in five minutes he would start walking to the Marlborough and get there for opening time. He wanted a pint of beer in the padded security of the pub more than he could ever remember wanting anything; he hoped to God that no one discovered Gumper before he had time to leave the building and anaesthetise the nightmare with alcohol.
The rumbustious bellow of Primrose’s laughter rolled over the Common-Room—he had evidently reached the climax of his anecdote. Dougal had a sudden craving to leap up and hit Primrose over the head with a coffee table. Or, more subtly, to whisper in his ear that everyone in the Department called him Madame Pee- Pee behind his back (which wasn’t true—only Dougal did).
Oh God, Primrose was starting up his seduction routine, prefacing it with a story from Cambridge, where his parents lived. Dougal had watched the routine in action several times during the last few months. It never varied, though its object altered, usually for the worse, every week or so. Primrose had started in October with the prettiest postgraduate female in the Department. The technique involved the closest physical proximity (without any breach of decorum), cups of coffee from the hot drinks machine, a breathless resumé, or rather extended exposition, of Pee-Pee’s academic career to date and The Invitation. The intended victim would make her excuses—husbands, boyfriends, previous engagements and—on one glorious occasion just before a seminar—a blunt dismissal from a student from Texas: ‘Ah, piss off, prune-face, you make me wanna puke.’ Primrose had reached the spots and spectacles at the plainer end of the spectrum, but his ardour was undiminished.
Dougal stared at his book and monitored the conversation behind him; it was preferable to listening to his own thoughts, after all. At present Primrose’s affections seemed to be directed towards a fat girl with lank black hair and a pendulous lower lip. Dougal thought she was called Muriel. Pee-Pee was sympathising with her, at great length, on the misfortune she had suffered— getting her first degree at a red-brick university. ‘Of course,’ Primrose consoled, ‘while Oxbridge undoubtedly marks a chap for life, it doesn’t mean that the quality of the academic experience is any less valid elsewhere.’ Big of you, thought Dougal.
He saw with relief that his five minutes were up. He closed the book, returned it to his briefcase and struggled out of the low-slung armchair. Primrose looked across the room at him, his gold- rimmed spectacles twinkling with sociability. Dougal avoided his eye and sidled out of the Common-Room into the corridor. He began to run down the stairs, three at a time, in his relief, but slowed to a more decorous pace as the thought occurred that it might look as if he was running away from something. He resisted the temptation to glance at Gumper’s door on the first floor landing. It wasn’t difficult. As he went down the last flight of stairs, he realised that he had automatically pursed his eyes to thin slits. See no evil, or at least not too much evil.
His habitual optimism was returning; it didn’t obliterate the events of the last few minutes, but it rearranged their contours in his mind. It was going to be all right: no one would connect him with Gumper’s death—his presence in the building was explained by his visit to the Common-Room. The worst he need expect was routine questioning by the police at some point, for presumably they would check all Gumper’s students as a matter of course.
The corridor on the ground floor was empty, too. Dougal skipped out of the building, feeling like a reprieved prisoner, and turned left into the dimly-lit alley which led to the college’s side entrance. There was no one in sight.
He set out briskly, swinging his briefcase. He was only ten yards away from the Department when a burly shape slid out of a darkened doorway into his path.
‘Hullo. I’ve been waiting for you.’ The stranger moved a little closer. ‘I’d like to have a chat.’