Book excerpt

Physical Education

A Murder 101 Mystery

Maggie Barbieri

St. Martin's Press

One
 

Every women’s magazine I had ever read, every married friend I had ever had, and every romantic comedy I had ever seen had led me to conclude that married sex was a big, giant snore.
Fortunately for me, I have a pretty boring job and unlimited access to the Internet.
Problem solved.
I knew from experience that things settle down after a few months—or in the case of my first marriage, a few days—so I thought I was prepared for anything. What I didn’t realize was marrying the right man helped, as did being in love with the man you had married, neither of which had been the case the first go-round. Oh, and did I mention that husband number one was an inveterate liar, cheat, and general all-around scoundrel?
As a result of all of this past unpleasantness, I was pleasantly surprised by my betrothal to one Robert Edward Crawford, also known as Detective Hot Pants—or so he was dubbed by my best friend, Max Rayfield, who knows from her hot pants. That guy, a retired altar boy, was true-blue, and I was lucky to have found him, even if the circumstances of our first meeting, during a murder investigation no less, weren’t exactly a “meet cute.”
Crawford and I have been married for a few months, and while I thought he might tire of my pillow talk and limited sexual repertoire, the opposite has been true. Guy can’t get enough of me. Maybe it’s because he spends most of his time around dead people and the people who lie about killing them, but he continues to find me endlessly fascinating, both in and out of our Sealy Posturepedic. This is a good thing because I am a terrible cook, and as Max always likes to say, “You’re either good in bed or good in the kitchen. I, myself, happen to make a fantastic chicken français.” In that regard, she’s really not doing herself justice because if there is one thing that woman is good at, it’s getting men to do what she wants. And that has nothing to do with breaded chicken cutlets fried in vegetable oil.
I think she might be selling herself short.
I am a professor at a small Catholic university located at the northernmost tip of New York City. I was in my office and in the midst of one of my many bouts of illicit daydreaming when I was interrupted by a knock at the door. Paul, the new mail guy on my floor, was a pleasant, middle-aged man who had lost his job, bad economy and all, and joined us the week before. That’s what I had gotten from the thriving St. Thomas rumor mill anyway. I enjoyed him much more as a delivery person than our previous mail guy, who had no inner censor when it came to his comments on my sartorial choices and who often left me shaking my head in disbelief. If he had been anywhere but at St. Thomas, he would have been fired. Here, though, he had gotten promoted and was overseeing many of the men and women who delivered mail around campus. That’s the way we roll around here at our Catholic university. Paul poked his head in and asked if he was disturbing me.
“Not at all, Paul,” I said, taking in his perfectly pressed blue slacks and white polo shirt with the Blue Jays logo on the left breast. It took a secure man to wear a shirt with an angry-looking Blue Jay on the front of it. He only delivered mail directly to my office if the mail slot by the floor receptionist’s desk was too small to hold the bulk, so I wasn’t surprised when he produced a large, flat envelope and a box of books that I had requested from a publisher. Along with my full-time teaching load, I had been charged by my boss, the venerable Sister Mary McLaughlin, with picking a new literature textbook, a task in which I was not remotely interested. I did find that the college textbooks reps were more than happy to take me to lunch every week to secure the three-hundred-copy adoption of the book, and that was a nice side effect. But analyzing how many Renaissance poets there were to, say, medieval ones was just not in my bailiwick. Deciding whether two or three olives made the perfect martini was more in my bailiwick. As to the other stuff, I just didn’t care.
Paul came in and handed me the flat, rigid envelope, which looked as if it contained contents that were not to be bent, as well as the box of books. I groaned. The box was heavy and contained another four or five books for review, I suspected. He put the box of books on the floor, and I flung the envelope onto the top of my filing cabinet. “Thanks, Paul. Did you have a good Christmas?”
He seemed surprised that someone had taken the time to ask. “Why, yes, I did. Thank you for asking.”
“Did you cook?” I asked, settling back in behind my desk.
“Yes, I did,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb. “It’s just me and my mother, so not too much cooking to do.”
I don’t know if his intent was to make me feel sorry for him, but he did. The thought of him cooking for his presumably elderly mother and sharing the holiday meal with her alone made me a little sad. The thought crossed my mind that if he stayed on at St. Thomas, and by his amazing work ethic and the speed at which the mail got delivered, it seemed that he would, I would invite him and his mother to Easter dinner.
He hooked a thumb in the direction of the main office area. “I’d better go,” he said, and moved his cart along to the next doorway.
I figured Paul for single. No ring, probably lived with the aforementioned mother. This would be good news to one of my colleagues, a newly divorced, forty-year-old physics professor named Liz Jenkins, who sat in one of the other offices on the floor. To say that she was on the prowl was not doing the prowl, or those who prowled, justice. I was sure that she had already checked out Paul’s unadorned ring finger and was wondering what it would take to wrangle a date from the fit, swarthy, and not-that-bad-looking mail carrier. Okay, so he was a Meet the Fockers Robert De Niro and not a Raging Bull De Niro, but she was desperate and, I had found, not very discriminating. She had once dated one of the cafeteria workers for three months before she discovered that the man who visited him weekly to have lunch with him wasn’t his brother, as he claimed, but his parole officer. That didn’t stop her from having one more “breakup” date with him.
She was in my office before Paul had even vacated the floor. Her expertly highlighted blond tresses fell below her shoulders in a messy, yet assembled, kind of hairdo that would have looked like a rat’s nest on my head. “He’s cute,” she whispered, loud enough for me and everybody else on the floor to hear.
“I think he’s single,” I said, but not really paying attention. In my more than a decade of teaching at this school, I think I had uttered that sentence at least twenty times to Liz, even when it was clear that her intended paramours were playing for the other team. After her relationship with Parole Pete, as he was known around these parts, I figured that her dating a possible homosexual was a step up on the dating ladder.
“He’s kind of cute.” She swiveled around, something that couldn’t have been easy given the way her pants hugged her heart-shaped butt.
I’m not one to judge. My husband is the cream of the crop; everyone else pales by comparison.
She fluttered about in my office for a few more minutes, the color rising in her cheeks, the plan to ambush Paul, the mail carrier, growing in drama with every passing moment. Should she bring him coffee? Write him a note? Just ask him out directly? She talked herself into, and then out of, going out with him. Then she talked herself back into it again. She even went so far as to get mad at him for not calling her back after their first imaginary date. I took the opportunity to clear out my e-mail in-box, pack up my books and papers, and turn off my desk lamp. It was only when I exited my office that she got the hint and retreated to the safety of her lavender-scented office.
My phone rang right as I was locking up my office door, bleating out Crawford’s special ring: Hall and Oates’s “Private Eyes.” There aren’t too many songs written about cops, so this was as close as it was going to get. He hates it, and sometimes, just to annoy him, I’ll call my phone from his, just so the song will play and make him crazy. I’m special that way.
“Hey, Crawford.”
“Are you on your way home?” he asked.
I had to admit, I was a little tired. I wasn’t sure that a night of sexual gymnastics was on the docket and told him so.
“I just wanted to tell you that I’ll get the Chinese food,” he said. “But thanks for letting me know your plans for the next several hours. I was just thinking about dinner and wanted to save you a trip to Happy Garden.”
He sounded uncharacteristically sour; is that what twenty-four hours without sex will do to a guy? Me, I’m kind of like a camel that way; I’d been in the desert for so long before I met him that I could live without it for long periods. “I’m just leaving now so I’ll see you in twenty-three minutes, no traffic.” I hoped that his mood would improve in the time allotted for the trip.
In the time between my exiting the office and his phone call, several e-mails had filled my box, a few with those little red exclamation points in front of their subject lines. Two were from my boss, Sister Mary, who never met an exclamation point she didn’t like, and one was from a student who was submitting an essay to a literary magazine and wanted my feedback. By the next morning. I hastily texted Crawford to let him know that I would be later than I thought and opened the essay, which at first glance looked fine. Not what I would have written, but fine nonetheless. I corrected a few grammatical errors and sent it back to the student. I decided, foolishly, that Mary could wait. It was after five, the sun had just about set, and I had some Chinese food to eat. I left before anyone else could get their claws into me.
The beauty of the St. Thomas campus never gets old. Look due west for the most incredible views of the majestic Hudson River, at almost its widest point here at the northern edge of New York City. Winter was here, and even though the giant oaks on my college campus were bare, they were still spectacular. The air on campus was fraught with a charged energy that I chalked up to sexual frustration, or maybe it was just my imagination. You see, this is a Catholic university and the administration does its best to make sure that the students are focused on studying, Jesus, and athletics, in that order. No sex allowed. The administration’s focus on all things nonsexual had thus far proven to be spectacularly unsuccessful. These days, though, St. Thomas University was boasting of a pretty good women’s basketball team—Crawford’s daughter being an extremely talented center on the St. Thomas Blue Jays, who had yet to win a game despite being favorably ranked—and a good men’s swim team, so the athletics take up a bit of the coeds’ time.
When I was a student at the school, there were no men, and the women’s basketball team had been coached by a septuagenarian nun named Sister Peregrine, who decided that I was “too short” at five-ten to be a center, a position that I had played since third grade on my CYO basketball team, and cut me from the team after one year of playing time. Fortunately, that same year, the school saw a rise in recently emigrated women from the Eastern Bloc who filled out the team in terms of size and, fortunately, skills. That landed Sister Peregrine in the consolation match of the East Coast Catholic Schools’ Basketball Conference, or ECCSBC as it is affectionately known, and she became something of a legend at school until her untimely demise three years ago under the wheels of a New York express bus, an event that made her legendary in a completely different way.
Meaghan Crawford had had her heart set on Stanford University, but unfortunately, her dad’s New York City cop’s salary couldn’t handle the tuition and the frequent cross-country flights. That, coupled with the fact that Meaghan is a twin and her sister needed an education, too, had tilted the scales in St. Thomas’s favor when they offered Meaghan a full academic ride to the school. This decision had the added bonus of allowing her to play Division III basketball, because if there was one thing that Meaghan did well, besides school, it was play basketball. Her playing on the team was a slam dunk, so to speak. Although Crawford would have preferred I had access to his other daughter, the ill-behaved Erin, I had the opportunity to spend time with Meaghan, who rarely, if ever, did anything wrong.
I was looking forward to getting back into Blue Jay basketball. Under the tutelage of a rumored maniac named Coach Kovaks, the St. Thomas Blue Jays were expected to have an excellent season, even if they hadn’t done much at all to date.
I made my way to my car and looked forward to a quiet night at home with me, my husband, two orders of General Tso’s chicken with extra MSG, and my dog, of whom Crawford had become co-owner upon our marriage. Trixie Bergeron-Crawford, as she is known, is a one-hundred-pound golden retriever of dubious retrieving skills, but with such a never-ending store of unconditional love that we forgive her for her spotty memory and inability to bring back a stick thrown for her pleasure. She’s beautiful and loving and far more forgiving than I, but does have a taste for black suede, which has resulted in more than one missing pair of shoes or boots.
How did I get so lucky? I had no idea. I put the key in the ignition and started for home. A great husband, wonderful friends, a job I could do in my sleep; did it get any better than this? I didn’t think so, I thought smugly as I wended my way off campus, pulling past the guard booth at the entrance to the school and rolling down my window to bid the night guard a good shift.
The guard was a recently retired police officer named John Dugan, who had put in his twenty and then gotten the hell out of Dodge. According to Crawford, who had worked with him, Dugan had ridden the desk at the Fiftieth for many years and hadn’t seen a lot of action, so he was perfect for a stint as a St. Thomas security guard. Crawford was never sure as to why he wanted off the force so bad; the gig he had afforded a steady shift, full benefits, and not a lot of danger. I wondered why myself, but because I’m married to a homicide junkie, or so it seemed, I didn’t think I’d ever find out.
“Have a good night, John,” I said.
“You, too.” As I started to pull away, he put his hand on the window frame. “Hold up. Your trunk isn’t latched.”
“It isn’t?” I looked in the rearview. From that vantage point, it appeared closed. I wondered why the car hadn’t alerted me to this issue; it practically lets me know when I have to change the lint filter in my dryer, but this? Nary a beep nor a warning.
He trotted around to the back of the car. “Nope!” he called.
“Huh.” I put the car in park. Dugan attempted to close it, pushing down with the palms of both hands. I watched as the trunk flew up, obscuring his face.
I got out to inspect. “Never had a problem with it before,” I said as I took in his expression. His face, usually ruddy and healthy looking, was paler than a fish belly. He stepped away from the car and attempted to say something to me, but all that came out of his mouth was some kind of sound that was a cross between a moan and a retch.
This wasn’t going to end well. I knew that before I saw the pissed-off-looking St. Thomas Blue Jay embroidered on the front of the white polo shirt glaring up at me, blood spattered across its beak. Paul, late of the St. Thomas mail room and life in general, didn’t look so happy either, consternation etched on his lifeless face.


 
Copyright © 2011 by Maggie Barbieri

Maggie Barbieri is a freelance editor as well as a mystery novelist. Her father was a member of the NYPD, and his stories provide much of the background for her novels. This is her sixth Murder 101 mystery. She lives in Westchester County, NY.