Book excerpt

Final Exam

A Murder 101 Mystery

Maggie Barbieri

St. Martin's Press

One

"I’m Mary Magdalene!"

Now that got my attention. I was leaning against a wall in one of the dorm’s dining halls, scanning the crowd in a laconic fashion for anyone drinking an illegal substance and hoping I could get in on that action. We’re a dry campus. And let me tell you, there are some people who teach here who just need to get lit.

I was bored silly. Until I saw one of my best friends in the world, Father Kevin McManus, school chaplain and all-around nice guy, cutting a rug to some Kanye West song with another chaperone, a member of the sociology department. Nancy Weineger was married, a mother of four, and about fifty years old. She favored the peasant-skirt-cum-clog look, and to night she was also wearing a white cardigan sweater with, curiously, a lacey camisole underneath it. I had always thought of her as more of an Elisabeth, the proud mother of John the Baptist. It never would have crossed my mind that she fancied herself Mary Magdalene, a woman of (ahem) bad character, as the Bible says.

I don’t read the Bible and I hardly ever go to church, but what seventeen-year-old, upon learning that the Bible boasted a prostitute, hasn’t sat up and taken notice? I heard it lo those many years ago and it had stuck with me ever since. And oh yes, I had highlighted every passage devoted to her. Because if the Bible has a hooker, well, I’m in.

I stood up a little straighter as Kevin turned in mid-gyration and looked at me, his eyes wide behind his tortoise-framed eyeglasses. Nancy was doing some kind of cross between a clog dance and the chicken dance and getting progressively closer to Kevin as the song built to a rap-flavored crescendo. We were at a post– spring break faculty mixer that has a history of being the most boring event to be held anywhere. Ever. But it’s a command performance and you can’t just make a quick appearance and then duck out because the president, Mark Etheridge, thinks he’s very clever and prepares awards for everyone, which he hands out only after the buffet dinner has been served. So, if you’re not there to accept your "Worst Parallel Parker!" award, you’ll hear about it. You can’t get out of it by using an excuse— not even my old standby (diarrhea) because he’s on to that one.

Nancy was working herself into a frenzy, so Kevin danced closer to me.

"Cut in," he said breathlessly.

I cupped a hand to my ear, faking deafness. "What?" I asked. "I can’t hear you."

"Cut in," he said a little louder as Nancy grabbed his arm and dragged him back out into the middle of the floor.

I love to dance— in the privacy of my bedroom. There, I perform nightly. It’s a one-woman show and the audience consists of my golden retriever, Trixie, and, I just learned, the prepubescent kid across the street. I caught him with binoculars the week before, peering through my second-story bedroom window. When confronted, he claimed to be concerned that I was having a seizure. But Kevin needed help, and being as he’s the one who’s usually bailing me out, I felt like I needed to repay the favor. I put down my glass of flat Diet Coke and disco-strutted onto the dance floor. I grabbed Kevin around the waist and spun him around because while he’s quick and fit thanks to a childhood filled with Irish dancing and boxing lessons, he’s also more of a flyweight to my bantamweight. And he’s also a good three inches shorter than I am so that when we do dance together at school functions, I always lead. It’s the curse of the tall girl. Or the bossy one. I can’t decide which is more accurate.

As I prepared to get down to "Gold Digger," the mood, and song, changed abruptly and we found ourselves slow-dancing to "Wind Beneath My Wings," the top of Kevin’s head grazing the bottom of my chin. He’s one of my two best friends in this world, so nobody thought twice about seeing us in this terpsichorean clinch, yet I suddenly felt suitably uncomfortable and so we beat a hasty retreat from the dance floor—or middle of the dining hall, as the case may be— and into two open chairs at a small round table.

One of the reasons I love Kevin is because he’s an inveterate gossip. The minute we sat down, he leaned in conspiratorially. "So, I guess you heard what happened to Wayne Brookwell?"

I shook my head. "Nope." Unless Kevin tells me, I have no idea what goes on on campus. I flagged down a passing student who was a server for the party and probably getting either community service hours or work study credit for her time. I asked her for two Diet Cokes. "But before we get to that, what’s with you and Nancy Weineger? Or should I say, ‘Mary Magdalene’?"

Kevin shook his head, clearly embarrassed. "She’s one of those wacky Catholics who fall in love with priests. I’ve seen it a thousand times."

He had? This was a new phenomenon to me. I’d heard of "Fr. What-a-Waste"—the handsome priest who devotes himself to Christ rather than a woman— but I didn’t see Kevin in that role. My incredibly handsome boyfriend had once confessed to thinking about becoming a priest. Him? He would have been the ultimate Fr. What-a-Waste. Kevin? Not so much. "Explain."

"Nothing to explain," he said, taking a sip of the soda that had been delivered to our table. "The collar turns some people on." He was pretty matter-of-fact, confident that his collar was setting libidos ablaze, so I took him at his word.

"Interesting." I poked him in the ribs with my elbow. "Ever think of taking her up on it?" I asked, only half joking.

He gave me a horrified look. "No!" He smoothed down the front of his black clerical shirt. "I have to be careful with these kinds of situations. You know that."

"I do know that," I said. "Just joking, Kev."

"Besides," he said, "you know the archdiocese isn’t my biggest fan."

I knew that, too. Kevin had been sent to St. Thomas after several complaints from parishioners at the church in which he had been installed prior to this job. Something about repeated sermons about the cardinal and his champagne tastes, which was fine, if said cardinal wasn’t closing churches and parochial schools with wild abandon due to lack of funds. The archdiocese figured that sticking him at a Catholic college with a small enrollment and a host of blind and deaf nuns was better than having him preach the Gospel at a thriving parish. So far, Kevin had made it work. And he had made my teaching here that much more enjoyable through our delightful, yet unorthodox, friendship.

He looked around and leaned in again. "So, Wayne Brook-well?"

"Remind me who he is again?" I drank my second flat Diet Coke and made a face. "This would be much better with a shot of rum." Unless I broke into the nurse’s office and got us all a shot of Robitussin, flat Diet Coke would have to do.

"He was the resident director over at Siena Hall."

I filed through my brain, trying to remember him. "Tall? Gangly? Just misses at handsome?"

Kevin did a finger gun at me. "Bingo." He looked around again, obviously afraid of being overheard. But "Wind Beneath My Wings" was reaching its crescendo and I could barely hear him, never mind the people standing at least five feet behind us. "He’s gone. His room’s cleaned out, and he didn’t let anyone know he was leaving. Dean Merrimack has no idea where he is or why he left."

Merrimack was the director of student housing and a general douche nozzle, a word I had heard one of my students using. I tried it out in my head and kind of liked the way it fit. "Well, I can’t imagine that RD is that fulfilling of a job. Maybe he got something else," I said, not really caring what had happened to Wayne Brookwell or why he left so unceremoniously. "Maybe he got deployed?" I said. "Didn’t I see him in a uniform?"

"Yes, as a limo driver," Kevin said. "He had a side job driving executives to the airport."

"Are you even allowed to do that?" Maybe moonlighting could solve my problem of funding a vacation to France. I mulled over a second career as a barista until Kevin brought me back to the conversation by waving his hand in front of my face. I refocused. "What are they going to do about another RD? Once spring break is over, there’s only five weeks left for the semester."

Kevin shrugged. "I have no idea. I know that a couple of the guys who live in the dorm do it, too, to make extra money." He looked around the room, taking in the styles of our colleagues and commenting on their dance moves. "I think this whole thing with Wayne is extremely suspicious," he said pointedly after he had finished dance-hall reconnaissance, raising an eyebrow at me.

I stared back at him. "Oh, no you don’t," I said, finally seeing where he was going with this conversation. "My sleuthing days are over."

"But where did he go? Aren’t you the least bit interested?" he asked, working himself up to the point where he had to down his Diet Coke in one swallow to quench his thirst.

"Couldn’t care less." The only reason I knew who Wayne Brookwell was that he bore a passing resemblance to my cousin Armand—quite the cheesemaker and cocksman according to my very proud, and very late mother—from Baie Ste. Paul in Quebec. Other than that, I wouldn’t have known him from Adam.

Something over my shoulder caught Kevin’s eye and he sat up straight. "Pull yourself together. It’s Etheridge."

Mark Etheridge is the president of our college and not my biggest fan. He’s mezzo mezzo on Kevin because of Kevin’s lackadaisical attitude toward the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism but has a certain amount of respect for him because he’s a priest. Me, I’m just a nontenured professor who’s been involved in a few too many skirmishes with the law, mostly stemming from my being involved in a few too many murder investigations. See? Nothing serious. I felt Mark’s presence behind me and my back straightened instinctively, too.

"Father. Dr. Bergeron," he said by way of a greeting.

I turned in my chair. "Hello, President Etheridge," I said, trying my best to hide my disdain. What president of a school with a mere twelve hundred students insists on being called "President"? Mark Etheridge, that’s who. He and I have a tenuous relationship at best; at worst, we’re archenemies, just like in a comic book. I’m "Big Tall Girl" and he’s "Little Short Man" and we engage in mortal combat every so often. I still don’t have tenure and I’m betting he’s behind it because even though my direct boss, Sister Mary, isn’t really crazy about my off-hours pursuits— basically, murder investigations— she thinks I’m a good teacher. And not for nothing, but my doctoral dissertation was a masterpiece, if I do say so myself. That should count for something. But Etheridge doesn’t like the body count and I don’t like that he’s just not very nice to me. I remained seated so that I wouldn’t tower over him.

"When you get a moment, Dr. Bergeron, I’d like to see you in my office," he said, turning on his heel and walking away.

I guessed that meant now.

Kevin watched in wide-eyed amazement. "Wow. That was rude, even for Etheridge." He pushed his chair back and stood. "You’d better go. Do you think this has to do with tenure?"

I took one last sip of liquid courage—flat Diet Coke—and stood. "I doubt it." I smoothed my skirt and headed across the dance floor. I called back to Kevin, "Wish me luck!"

He crossed his fingers and held them in the air. "Good luck!"

I didn’t realize just how badly I would need it.

Excerpted from Final Exam by Maggie Barbieri.
Copyright © 2009 by Maggie Barbieri.
Published in December 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Maggie Barbieri, author of Quick Study, is a freelance editor as well as a mystery novelist. Her father was a member of the NYPD, and his stories about being a motorcycle and a beat cop provide much of the background for her mysteries. This is her fourth Murder 101 mystery; Kristin Davis of Sex and the City has optioned the series for television. Maggie lives in Westchester County, New York.