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The cold liquid splashed the back of my neck before it rolled down and underneath my shirt. I gasped and reflexively turned to see who had sloshed their drink in my direction.
“Delaney! I’m so sorry. Oh dear. Here let’s go tae the toilet. I’ll get you cleaned up and you can have my shirt,” Sophie said loudly with a drunken slur as she grabbed my arm and started to pull me through the crowd.
“But then what will you wear?” I asked, trying to raise my voice.
She didn’t hear me above the crowd and band noise. I barely heard myself.
Though loud, the performers weren’t, in fact, a band; they were a duo. Mad Ferret was made up of one Irish and one Scottish gentleman. Together they performed upbeat folk songs that brought out the jig in pretty much everybody.
I’d first seen them with Tom, my boyfriend, after the two Mad Ferret members had stopped by his pub one evening and invited him to a show. Tom had taken me to see them in a very dark pub that hadn’t seemed quite big enough for the jubilant crowd inside. The setting was much the same tonight, though Tom wasn’t with me and my new friends, Sophie and Rena, and my newest friend Mallory, whom I’d just met this evening. All the women were medical students at the University of Edinburgh.
A few crowd dodges later, Sophie and I made our way toward the small back ladies’ room, a place where everyone wrote their name on the walls and the liquid soap smelled like the lavender hips scent my mom used in her kitchen back home in Kansas.
The three green-doored stalls inside were empty and the music fell into a muffled tinny bass beat when the bathroom door closed behind us.
“Your shirt is soaked through. I’m so, so sorry. I was careless. I’ll have it cleaned,” Sophie said as she turned me around so she could inspect my back. Then she turned me again to face her. “Here, take mine.”
I stopped her just as she made it to the second button of her blouse.
“It’s not a problem. I’ve been spilled on before,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
She blinked her heavily mascaraed brown eyes my direction. Until tonight I’d only seen her and her roommate Rena with light to no makeup and hastily brushed or pulled back hair. They were usually dressed in scrubs or jeans. Their skirts and makeup as well as their post-test Friday desire to blow off some steam had surprised me tonight, though I remembered that feeling from when I was back at the University of Kansas.
I’d lost track of how many gin and tonics they’d downed, though it seemed that Sophie was moving double-time compared with the rest of us. Now, some of her latest drink was beginning to make my back sticky. I was going to smell like a pine tree, but I didn’t really mind.
Reluctantly she said, “All right. At least let me buy you a drink tae make up for it.”
I laughed. “I’m good, but I’m glad you’re having fun.”
“I’m going to have a wicked hangover tomorrow, but it’s worth it. It’s good tae let loose a little.”
I smiled and redid the one button on her shirt. She didn’t seem to notice as she leaned against the sink.
“It’s a lucky twist of fate that we met you,” she said.
“I feel the same about you guys. Come on, let’s head back out and listen to some more music,” I said, sensing an alcohol-induced love fest coming on if I didn’t distract her.
A couple of months earlier, Sophie and Rena had come into The Cracked Spine, the rare book and manuscript shop that I’d traveled halfway around the world to work at. They’d brought in some old medical books that had been in Rena’s family for decades. Rena’s father had given her the books with the hope she could sell them and use the money to help with her own medical school tuition.
An Atlas of Illustrations of Clinical Medicine, Surgery and Pathology was made of up twenty-five books, all of them filled with colorful, gruesome pictures that depicted the many things that could go wrong on and in the human body. The books had been printed in the early 1900s by the New Sydal Society, with hand-drawn illustrations. My boss Edwin’s eyes had filled with tears when he’d seen them; he’d swooned.
“Lass,” he’d said. “These were from the time of the Industrial Revolution, when we didn’t even know how much we were learning until later when we could look back and be utterly amazed at ourselves. These are the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long, long while.”
He’d pored over the books for days, dreamily. I’d thought that perhaps he’d had more than a few moments over the years when he wished he’d turned his biology degree into something medical, instead of founding and cultivating the most amazing rare and used book and manuscript shop in Scotland.
Edwin had given Rena slightly more than the books were worth. He couldn’t decide what to do with them. He wouldn’t resell them, but would either keep them for himself or donate them to a library, or perhaps to the University of Edinburgh Medical School. Edwin liked those sorts of happy endings. Someday, Rena might walk past a display case and look upon the books that had helped her and so many others before her learn the most respected of professions.
I found the medical books interesting, particularly when I could manage to look past the stomach-curdling images and let myself be amazed by the knowledge, work, and sheer will of patience that had gone into creating them. I knew that some of Edwin’s most beloved treasures weren’t the most expensive ones. I suspected he’d keep the books for himself.
Sophie bounced herself away from the sink but then leaned, in a weird slow-motion movement, back into it again.
“I need tae tell you something,” she said as she grabbed my arm.
She glanced toward the door and then at the empty stalls. “You can’t tell Rena.”
“Um, okay,” I said.
“I think I’m in trouble. I’m not having a good semester. And that test today; I’m sure I failed,” she said.
“Oh, Sophie, I’m sure you’re going to be fine. You’ve been brilliant so far. You’re just … Well, you’ll feel better tomorrow. Maybe not in the morning, but by the afternoon.” I gave her a smile, but I didn’t think she saw it.
She and Rena had been brilliant, attaining notoriety at the University of Edinburgh Medical School as two of its top students. They’d both come from Glasgow, started college twice, once when they were both eighteen and then again at twenty-five. Their first time, they’d flunked out. After a successful second run at undergrad, they’d begun medical school when they were thirty. Friends since they were younger, Sophie and Rena had made a pact to go through life together. They were an unbeatable team.
“No, no.” She waved off my words. “Medical school is really, really hard, Delaney.”
“I know, but I’m sure … Hey, let’s not worry about that tonight. When will you know the grade on this test you took today?”
“Should be posted by Sunday.”
“All right. I’ll come over and we’ll look at it together if that would help. Or you can come over to my house. Whatever is easier. I’m sure it will be fine, Sophie. You’ve had a fair amount to drink, and maybe that’s causing some undue emotions.”
She looked at me with glassy eyes, blinking heavily again. “I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am. Come on.”
But before I could get her away from the sink again, the bathroom door opened, bringing Rena and Mallory into the already cramped space.
“There you are!” Rena said as she glanced back and forth between Sophie and me. “Everything okay?”
“Yep. We were just heading back out,” I said.
Inside the small room, Sophie and Rena’s similarities seemed even more obvious. Both were tall and thin with brown eyes and long brown hair. Sophie’s hair had a wave to it while Rena’s was stick-straight. When you looked closely, you could spot other differences too: Sophie’s face was pleasantly round, Rena’s was made with slightly sharper angles and she had a stronger chin. They didn’t look like sisters, but could pass for cousins. In contrast, Mallory was shorter, curvier, and platinum blond. Her dark roots currently showed and she’d mentioned to everyone earlier that she needed to do something about them, but that there would be no time until the short summer break that began in a couple of months.
“Oh. Let’s wait a bit,” Rena said.
“Why?” I asked.
Rena and Mallory looked at each other.
“Dr. Eban is out there,” Mallory said.
Sophie put her hand to her mouth. “He’s here?”
“Aye,” Rena said. “And he’s taking note of the students he sees, I’m certain. He’s rather evil that way.”
“He’s probably come tae ruin everyone’s night,” Sophie said. “Fail us all for having a wee bit of fun when we should all be home, crying about the grades he’ll be doling out on the exam.”
Rena’s eyebrows came together as she looked at Sophie and then at me. “None of us want tae make an ill impression.”
“He’s a tough one,” Mallory said to me with a small smile. “He’s also a wee bit odd.”
“Odd how?” I asked, noting that Mallory seemed more amused than horrified, as Sophie seemed to be. I chalked up the different reactions to the probable levels of alcohol each had consumed.
As I asked the question, a thought took shape in the back of my mind. None of these women, though Mallory was only twenty-seven to Sophie and Rena’s thirty-two, was young or foolish. They were grown, long of legal drinking age. It didn’t seem to me that they should feel the need to hide their behavior from anyone, including a professor.
Mallory seemed to consider the best way to further explain Dr. Eban, but Rena jumped in. “He begins every semester with a story about William Burke and William Hare. Those names familiar?”
“Of course,” I said. “The men who killed for corpses.” I cleared my throat. “That’s a bit to the point, but…”
“Right,” Rena said. “Back in the early 1800s they killed and sold the corpses of their victims tae Dr. Robert Knox, who used them for dissection in his anatomy classes at the University of Edinburgh. Anyway, Dr. Eban tells the story, and his rendition is filled with enough drama for a vampire story. He finishes off the lecture by saying that Burke and Hare probably saved more people than they murdered, considering what their contributions did tae assist medical students. He has a point, but it was still murder, and the way he tells the story … he’s plain creepy. It’s a tone he sets for himself early, and it’s something he sticks with. That, along with his always-tough attitude, makes him the most talked about, and probably most feared, professor at the medical school.”
Mallory added, “Either it’s just the way he is, or the impression he wants tae give. And he conducts his classes in a theater that’s set up the exact same way Dr. Knox’s was, on purpose. There’s a plaque about Dr. Knox on the wall outside the door and everything.”
“In his office, he’s a totally different man, when no one else is looking,” Sophie said.
We looked at her as she leaned against the sink. I thought she might say more, but it seemed like she lost her train of thought.
“I could use a cup of coffee,” she said a moment later.
“I think that’s the best idea of the night,” Rena said. “Come on, I saw a table in the back. It’s small, but we’ll see if we can grab it.”
“I’ll go order the coffee,” Mallory said.
The musicians told the crowd they were taking a break just as we exited the restroom. I followed behind the other three and kept on the lookout for someone creepy as we weaved our way thought the mostly student crowd in the small pub.
I’d met a few students over the past couple of months. Rena and Sophie shared a flat close to the university. Most of the building’s residents were medical school students, but not all. It was immediately obvious who the undergrads were. Other than the fact that they looked the youngest, they also usually seemed to be having the most fun.
As we made our way through the crowd I spotted a familiar woman leaning against the bar next to another woman I didn’t recognize. The one I recognized lived on the bottom floor of Sophie and Rena’s building, and had opened the building’s front door for me a few times. She could spot visitors approaching though her window and seemed to feel compelled to let people in.
Though I’d never met Mallory before tonight, she lived in Rena and Sophie’s building too, in a flat all her own. She’d already mentioned that she spent most of her time holed up there, studying, and studying some more. In the brief time I’d known her I’d already noticed that she had a quiet calm about her that Sophie and Rena didn’t possess. Maybe Mallory just worked harder to hide her stress.
I waved at the woman from the first floor, someone I’d pegged as an undgrad. I thought she was looking my direction, but she didn’t wave back. I followed her line of vision and spotted who she must have been watching instead. A handsome man, probably about sixty, stood not far from the edge of the small dance floor. He wore dark pants and a dark peacoat over his tall, thin frame. His short dark hair was slicked back from his high forehead, and though I thought his nose should be hooked to match the rest of him, it wasn’t. It was straight and almost regal. He was lazily holding a tumbler half full of liquid.
He didn’t see me looking, and neither he nor the young woman noticed that I saw what happened next. Both the man by the dance floor and the woman sent a quick, furtive glance toward a third person, a man who seemed to be in a hurried exit out of the pub. The only features I caught of the third person were a head full of bushy gray hair and the back of a tall body that moved in defiance of the gray hair; strong and sure.
It could have been my imagination or the happenstance of my timing regarding their expressions, but in those brief beats of time, I thought both the man by the dance floor and the woman were concerned about the leaving man, or at least concerned about something. But the moment was over quickly, and I immediately doubted what I thought I’d seen.
As we approached the table Rena had spied, three men were also about to sit there. They sent us smiles of surrender and let us have the chairs.
After we sat, Mallory approached with a tray of four cups of coffee. “Freshly brewed,” she said as she placed the cups in front of us one at a time and then leaned the tray against the wall. She angled herself into the tight space that held the last of the four chairs.
“Did you see him?” Sophie asked Rena.
“Yeah, just standing there being creepy,” Rena said.
“The tall man in the dark clothes next to the dance floor?” I asked.
“That’s him. That’s Dr. Eban,” Rena said.
“Did you guys see the gray-haired man leaving?” I said.
They all looked toward the door and said they hadn’t.
“He must have left,” I said, not sure why those brief seconds had made such an impression on me.
Mallory twisted around in her chair so she could see the man by the stage. “That’s Dr. Eban, though. He’ll probably just stand there all night and ooze horror, just tae set us all off balance. Take away our fun.” Her words were ominous, but her tone was somewhat playful.
I looked at Rena.
She shrugged and said, “Believe it or not, that’s probably exactly what he’s doing. It’s a power thing, I think. He likes bothering us.”
“He teaches anatomy, huh?” I said.
“Aye,” three voices said together.
“Here’s the other part,” Sophie said. “He’s also one of the best teachers on campus. Really good. He’s just … difficult.”
“Unrealistic expectations,” I said before I sipped the coffee.
It wasn’t a question, but the three women looked at each other as if searching for the right answer.
“Yes,” Sophie said.
“Sort of,” Mallory said.
“I’m not sure they’re unrealistic, but they are high. We should have high expectations, though. We’re going tae be doctors,” Rena said.
I watched for Sophie’s reaction to Rena’s words, but didn’t see disagreement.
My back was to the wall. Since I was sitting in the corner seat, I had the best view of the rest of the pub, and I saw Dr. Eban moving in our direction. His eyes caught mine for an instant, and I knew our table was his destination.
“It looks as if he’s headed our direction,” I said without moving my lips or remaking eye contact with him.
Despite the instantaneous terror that blanched my tablemates’ faces, there was no escape now.
Copyright © 2018 by Paige Shelton