The Maltese Manuscript: A Professor Karen Pelletier Mystery #5

The Maltese Manuscript: A Professor Karen Pelletier Mystery #5

In classic noir tradition, English Professor Karen Pelletier gains a client when her office door opens and a famous Private Eye novelist enters. The author is dogged by Trouble (a ...

About The Author

Joanne Dobson

Joanne Dobson, a former English professor at Fordham University, is the author of the Professor Karen Pelletier mystery series from ...

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Chapter One

The door to my office opened, and a dame walked in, bringing Trouble with her. The dame was Sunnye Hardcastle, celebrated crime novelist, and Trouble was her dog, a big Rottweiler with teeth like boning knives. I recognized them both from the author photo on the back cover of Tough Times, the latest novel in Hardcastle’s edgy Kit Danger series. I’d purchased the book a week earlier at Smith’s Bookshop, but hadn’t had time to do more than look over the  jacket.

My class notes went flying as I jumped up from the green vinyl chair. “Sunnye Hardcastle?” Ms. Hardcastle was tall with red hair in a modified poodle cut, tight curls trimmed close to the head. She was in her fifties and fit, with a runner’s sinewy slenderness. She wore leggings and a black leather jacket cut close to the body, and Trouble dogged her heels, kept up short on a wide leather strap.

“Yes. And you’re Professor Karen Pelletier.” The writer’s eyes were dark and opaque, her eyeliner a gunmetal grey. “Or so the secretary said.” Monica Cassale, the Enfield College English Department secretary, hovered in the hallway, mouth agape. She was a big Hardcastle fan.

“Right. I mean, yes, I am.” I pushed the door. It didn’t quite shut. “Won’t you sit down, Ms. Hardcastle?” I gestured toward the chair I had just vacated, and when she glanced at it and hesitated, I snatched up the scrawled-over class notes and deposited them in a clump on my desk. Sunnye Hardcastle graced the green chair with a visceral glamour the likes of which this office had never before seen. Her large leather shoulder bag rested next to the chair, within easy reach; rumor had it Hardcastle didn’t go anywhere without carrying a weapon. Trouble lay at her feet. His muzzle rested on one heavy-soled leather boot. His vigilant brown eyes assessed me.

Good dog, I thought. Stay.

“I hope you don’t mind me dropping in like this, without notice.” The writer fixed me with her dark unsmiling gaze.  It didn’t much matter whether I minded or not; she was there. She let go of the Rottweiler’s leash, laying it loosely across her lap. Trouble glared at me. A rumble emanated from a region deep in his throat. Vladimir Litvintsev, my linguistics colleague down the hall, would have called that sound a glottal rumble. The dog’s owner didn’t seem to hear it.

“Not at all.” I ventured a sidelong glance at Trouble. Stay! “Sorry if I seemed rude, Ms. Hardcastle, but you’re the last person I would have expected to see here.” I made an all- encompassing sweep with my hand, signifying the plush encapsulated milieu of privilege that is Enfield College. She took my gesture as an invitation to scrutinize the room.

My office was spacious and professorial in the conventional manner, book-laden and a bit shabby. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases on two walls. A recessed seat beneath leaded casement windows. A large oak desk with an antique wooden swivel chair I avoided whenever possible. A matching conference table. Polished wood floors half-covered by a green needlepoint rug. All these glories had been bequeathed me by previous occupants going back to the 1830s when Dickinson Hall was erected. Nothing individual. Nothing mine—except for the life-sized black-and-white Humphrey Bogart poster plastered to the back of the door. Nonetheless,  I inhabited the room comfortably. It was a Professor’s office. I was a Professor. I was anything but complacent about that fact.

“I was in the area,” Sunnye Hardcastle said, her gaze migrating back in my direction. “Book tour. I stopped by on an impulse because I wanted to talk to you.” She glanced down at her fingernails. They were short and rounded, painted the bright red of heart’s blood.

“To me?” What could this world-renowned crime novelist want with an English professor? From across the hallway I heard the English Department office door slam shut, then click as the key turned in the lock. Footsteps vanished down the hallway. I checked my watch. 2:07. Why was Monica leaving so early when her idol was within arm’s reach?

The writer gave a short laugh. It was not what I would describe as a particularly joyous sound. “On my way to Boston I was looking over the preliminary program for a crime fiction conference I’ve been invited to appear at here in…when is it? March?”

“Oh,” I said. “The Women’s Studies conference.”  “That’s right—Women’s Studies.” The words did not roll off her tongue with the familiarity of use.

“Are you planning to attend?” Sunnye Hardcastle’s participation would be a coup for the conference organizers.

“I’m thinking about it.” As if it were of no import, she flicked away her possible appearance with the tips of her bright red nails. “But when I saw the topic of your talk, I told the driver to take a detour to  Enfield.”

The bell rang to announce the changing of classes. Ms. Hardcastle broke off and looked out the window.

It was mid-January, the first day of the spring semester. Students hurried by in noisy clumps on their way to classes: American Ethnic Literatures, Principles of a Pluralistic Polity, Great Books by Women. The weather was grey and mushy, and a girl in a red plaid jacket picked her way carefully around a big puddle just outside my window. L. L. Bean boots are expensive. No sense in getting them wet.

Then Peggy Briggs trudged by, plowing right through the center of the puddle in her K-Mart duck boots, weighed down by a canvas backpack that looked like Viet-Nam-era Army surplus. Peggy was a “mature student,” the administration’s designation for anyone over twenty-four. She was a stocky woman of about thirty, a single mother on welfare plucked from the graduation rolls of Greenfield Community College as part of Enfield’s half-hearted efforts to diversify its student population. Among the sleek children of privilege, she stood out like an inflamed thumb.

“Obviously you’re not teaching right now,” Sunnye Hardcastle said. I had her attention again, and her confident tone set my teeth on edge. You’re not teaching right now. As if I were simply sitting around on my duff waiting for celebrity writers to drop by.

“My American Popular Fiction seminar meets in an hour, Ms. Hardcastle. I’m free until then.” To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have minded something to distract me. It was an honors seminar, and I had a bad case of the first-day jitters.

“Popular fiction? You mean like crime fiction?” I nodded.

“You’re kidding. I didn’t know they actually taught that stuff in colleges.” Trouble nudged her leg. She scratched the big dog behind his ears. Her grey eyes assumed a distant expression, as if she were contemplating anything but the vagaries of college curriculum. Then, outside the window, a student yelled, “Hey, George, whatup?” and Sunnye Hardcastle snapped back to the moment.

“Professor Pelletier, I’ll be brief.” Her tone became brusque. “I’m just beginning a new book—a complete departure from the Kit Danger stories—”

A Hardcastle novel without Kit Danger? I couldn’t imagine it. “—and I could use some expert advice.”

Expert advice? From me? The world of the Kit Danger novels was, as you might expect, a perilous place. Dysfunctional families destroyed their children. Corrupt civil servants bled communities dry. Corporations conducted massive cover-ups of deadly products. Brutal gang members terrorized neighborhoods. The wealthy preyed upon each other, and upon the poor. And Kit Danger, private eye, took under her wing the most vulnerable of the weak and needy, restoring a momentary justice at the end of each venture, most often in spite of the wiles of treacherous, alluring men. I certainly had no expert advice to offer her creator.

Unless, of course, she wanted to discuss the wiles of treacherous, alluring men.

“This is going to be an historical novel,” the writer con- tinued, “set in the New York City slums during the nineteenth century, and, to tell the truth, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the research I’ll have to do. The book needs to be as authentic as possible, but I’m no historian.” Her dark eyes narrowed as she focused on me. “When I saw in the conference program that you were going to speak on the American working class, I thought maybe you could help me with some historical sources.”

I was scheduled to give a talk on murder in American working-class literature. It had been listed in the program as Deconstructing Death: Class Binaries in the Representation of Murder in American Working-Class Discourse, 1845-1945. In spite of the quasi-lurid title, this was a fairly dry academic topic, and I was up to my ears in historical sources. “Well, certainly,” I said. “That would be no problem….” Fifty minutes later, Sunnye and I were seated at the conference table, poring over bibliography printouts and old books. Someone knocked at the door, then, without waiting for a response, pushed it open. Monica entered, out of breath. A clump of short brown hair stood straight up where she had  snatched off  her  baseball cap.  “Mail delivery,” she announced. Mail delivery? Our mail is never delivered any further than the pigeon-hole boxes two steps away from the secretary’s desk.

Monica thrust a handful of envelopes in my general direction, but her eyes were glued to Sunnye Hardcastle, and she took an impulsive step toward her. Trouble growled. His mistress silenced him.

“Ms. Hardcastle,” the secretary said, braving Trouble’s tooth-baring snarl as she traversed the room, “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t leave without signing my copy of Tough Times.” Her hand rose to her heaving chest. “I ran all the way home to get it. You’re my favorite writer ever.”

Sunnye smiled at her. I was surprised she possessed the appropriate facial muscles. “How nice of you to say so. I’d be happy to sign your book.” She opened Tough Times to the title page, scrawled an inscription, and signed with a flourish. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou,” Monica gushed, hugging the book to her chest. “I’ll treasure this forever.” Then she turned to me, her eyebrows puckering. “Karen? Don’t you have a class now?”

“Aaargh!” My watch informed me I had four and a half minutes to get across campus.

Sunnye stood up. “Professor Pelletier—Karen—I didn’t mean to make you late.” Then, very formally, she said. “I appreciate your help. If there’s ever anything I can  do…”

I was thrusting notes and books helter-skelter into my briefcase, but I paused. The class would wait for me. Ten minutes for an assistant professor. Twenty for an associate professor. A half-hour for a full professor. That was the common etiquette in any college I’d ever had anything to do with. I had no idea where these laws had come from in the first place, but they seemed to hold true at all times in all places.

I hefted the briefcase and gazed at Sunnye consideringly. My  seminar was in  popular fiction. She was a pop-fiction ground-breaker, the first of the hard-boiled female detective writers, the creator of that feminist icon, Kit Danger, the bad-ass sleuth from Detroit. The woman intimidated the hell out of me, but she had offered. “Well, maybe there is something…”

# # #

Sunnye Hardcastle was a smash hit with my seminar, twelve honors students seated around a battered mahogany conference table. The Emerson Hall seminar room was long and narrow, painted pale cream above blue-green wainscoting. The novelist sat at the head of the table and answered questions about writing and the writer’s life for over an hour. Trouble brooded at her feet. She was gracious and charming, and, perversely, I was miffed by her congeniality. Why was she so damn pleasant with everyone else and so curt with me?

To cap off her appearance, the novelist read to the class from Tough Times.

Dead men don’t tell tales, Kit Danger mused, as she peered from the catwalk high above the vast emptiness of the abandoned automotive plant. The two men sprawled on the fractured concrete floor were indisputably dead. She’d read that somewhere, that line about not telling tales; that was all just words, black ink etched on a white page. But the bodies were real. From where she balanced precariously on the catwalk, they looked like squashed white spiders oozing ragged trails of blood across a floor the color of lead shavings. These men were snitches. They were here to talk. They had arranged to meet her amidst the industrial detritus with the sole purpose of talking. Now they themselves were industrial detritus. The long impersonal forefinger of cold, hard power had reached out and pressed the discard button. There would be no more tales. 

At a soft sound from behind her, Kit spun around, the big Sig Sauer 226 ready in her hand….

When Sunnye finished reading, my students heaved a collective sigh. The edgy glamour of Kit Danger—and her creator—had gotten to them. At that moment I would have bet fully one half had decided to become crime writers themselves, and the other half, private eyes. The impetuous career-plan switches would last all of twelve-and-a-half minutes; with more than thirty thousand dollars a year shelled out for their education, Enfield College students tend not to be risk-takers.

Only Peggy Briggs, my “mature student,” seemed less than enthralled by Sunnye Hardcastle. Peggy watched the writer with hooded eyes, refraining from the general approbation. One hand clutched a blue ball-point pen, the other, clenched in a fist, lay taut on her thigh. As Sunnye Hardcastle signed bookmarks for the members of the class, Trouble raised his head from her boot and sniffed Peggy’s clenched hand. Peggy flinched. Trouble’s mistress yanked hard on his leash. The big dog sighed and lowered his muzzle to the  floor.

Sunnye turned to Peggy and offered her an autographed bookmark featuring a lurid black-and-crimson image of a smoking gun. Peggy took one look at the bookmark, emitted a gasp, followed by a wail and a guttural sob. I turned to my student, concerned. Abruptly she leapt up from her seat and ran out of the classroom, leaving her books and backpack behind.

“My God,” Sunnye Hardcastle said, “what the hell was that all about?”

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