Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Principal Cause of Death

Tom & Scott Mysteries (Volume 4)

Mark Richard Zubro

St. Martin's Griffin


The Principal Cause of Death

Outside my classroom windows, red and gold autumn leaves danced and swayed against the backdrop of magically clear blue skies. Even the aged panes, unwashed by countless janitors, couldn't keep out the glory of the afternoon. Water seeped around the warped and sagging sashes whenever it rained. After each blast of a storm, I expected to find glass strewn across the floor, but over the years they'd held. The day outside sparkled through them.
Fifth period, lunch just over, the quiet murmurs of education drifted through the hallways of Grover Cleveland High School. I leaned over Dennis Olsen's desk, for the fifteenth attempt since school began to convince him that capital letters did indeed come at the beginning of every sentence. I dipped deep into my reservoir of teacher patience and began to explain again.
This was Life Skills English class, which means, Make sure they can sign their name and count their change but don't expect much more. I had higher expectations. I wanted them to be able to read and fill out forms, balance a checkbook, and perhaps acquire another skill or two. I knew I couldn't turn them into nuclear scientists, but I wanted more than bare literacy.
Dan Bluefield banged open the classroom door, pushed his way down the aisle toward me, and thrust his pass in my direction. "Here, Mr. Mason," he said.
An inch before my fingers touched it, he let the piece of paper drop to the floor. He turned on his heel, shoved a kid out of a desk, and sat down.
Grover Cleveland High School has had problem kids over the years, and eventually I got most of them in this class.
Dan Bluefield was the toughest kid I'd tried to teach since Dennis Rogers fourteen years ago. Among Dennis's many achievements at Grover Cleveland: biting off the tip of a kid's finger; attempting to set fire to the gym; and attacking and wounding three teachers. Dennis earned straight F's in my class, managing to be disruptive, abusive, and rude. He'd made my days a living hell. I sighed with relief every time I saw his name on the absence list. I cheered for joy whenever they announced an assembly during the period I was supposed to have him in class. Last I heard, he was serving eight to ten years for armed robbery somewhere in Texas.
Dan Bluefield made Dennis look like an angelic first-grader. Parents, teachers, police, and a variety of state agencies had been trying to cope with him for years.
To his dubious credit, Steve Bailey, the kid who Dan shoved out of the chair, tried to punch back. Dan was six feet tall, thin, and wiry. Steve only came up to his shoulder. Without standing up, Dan gave Steve a powerful shove. Steve tumbled over several desks and fell to his knees. I got between them and restrained an enraged Steve.
"Dean's office," I said to Dan.
"Just came from there," he sneered.
At that moment I hated him more than anything in the universe. Hassling me was one thing; hurting other kids in my class was not going to happen as long as I was able to stop it. If I had wizard's powers, I'd have fried Dan on the spot. I wanted to take his sneers, smirks, and stupidity and beat the living shit out of him, but eighteen years of patience and training won out, and I said, "Dan, you have to go to the dean's office. You know you can't assault students."
He smirked, "I didn't assault him. He was in the way. I just asked him to move."
The other kids in the class watched the confrontation. For them this was great entertainment. No matter what happened, I knew they'd be on Dan's side. Didn't make any difference who was right or how many times Dan had made them miserable. One of the verities of the teaching world is that the students will take the kid's side versus the teacher. You cannot win a confrontation with kids. You can flatter your ego that you got the best of them, but you can't beat them.
The snotty little creep still sat in the desk he'd evicted Steve from. With both hands I grabbed the top of the desk. My knuckles turned white and I felt the desktop wobble. The desks were forty years old and years of seating teenagers made them treacherous at times. Last year one had collapsed under the minuscule weight of a scrawny freshman.
With my face an inch from his, I said, "Get out. Now. I, for one, am sick to death of putting up with you."
He laughed at me. He knew I wouldn't hit him. All the rules forbade hitting students, and ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, I agreed with those rules.
I put more pressure on the old wooden desktop. It gave a groan and snapped in two. Dan jumped up and eyed me warily, edging toward the door. Grasping a piece of desk top in each hand, I advanced toward him. Dan snarled and spat, sent another kid and desk sprawling, and stormed toward the exit. His parting shot just before he slammed the door was "Fuck you, faggot."
I strode to the intercom and called the office to let them know they had to be on the lookout for Dan.
Very little education got done for the fifteen minutes left in the period. I'd surprised myself with the towering anger I'd felt and how much I'd wanted to hurt the kid.
Class ended, the kids left, and I sat at my desk, staring out the window. I watched the breeze play with the undropped leaves as dappled sunlight created shifting patternson desktops, chalkboard, and floor. In two weeks Scott and I would be among the glorious fall colors in the woods in our cabin on Lake Superior. I gazed at a group of kids, dressed for PE class, trotting under the trees on their way to the athletic fields beyond.
The perfect weather couldn't prevent me from getting angrier and more frustrated. Fifteen minutes of planning-period time passed before I gave up trying to get any work done. I walked down the ancient and worn halls to the library. Small knots of students worked silently at the tables. I found Meg Swarthmore, the librarian, at the front desk.
"What's wrong, Tom?" she said as soon as she saw me.
I motioned her into the office behind the desk. We could talk in privacy, but she could still keep an eye on her charges through the glass in the door.
At sixty-six Meg is semiretired, working flexible hours, setting her own schedule. She used to be the ultimate clearinghouse for all school gossip, but she's given that up as well. "Too many hassles with the younger teachers" is the way she put it to me. She's a tiny woman, not much over five feet tall, and plump in a grandmotherly way.
I told her what just happened, including how badly I wanted to hurt Bluefield.
"You're human," she said. "You've done wonders with some of these kids in the past. You will in the future. Why should you be immune from wanting to flatten the little creep into tiny pieces? Every teacher he's had since the first grade has wanted to do the same." She told me about an episode when Dan was in the fifth grade. Meg'd been working for a few days in the elementary-school library, filling in for a sick coworker.
"Bluefield tried to glue a stack of books together. I told him to stop. He wouldn't. When I reached to take the books away from him, he tried to slap me. I was too quick for him. I held his arm, and when he couldn't get away, he tried to throw a fit. You know how sympathetic I am to that kind of nonsense."
Meg was tough. I'd seen her cow the 250-pound starting center on the football team. She never touched the kid, but she backed him up against his locker and let him have it, all in a calm near-whisper. The boy was in tears before she let him go.
She sighed. "Must have been seven years ago that I had my run-in with him. I almost got in trouble for restraining the little monster."
"You never told me," I said.
She mused a minute. "I thought I did. It was the usual nonsense. The father got all bent out of shape. Claimed I was picking on his creepy offspring. He tried to accuse me of inflicting corporal punishment."
In the State of Illinois teachers have the right to use corporal punishment on children. Different school districts have varying policies on using the right. In some places only the principal can administer corporal punishment. In the River's Edge school system, however, it is strictly forbidden for anyone to hit a kid.
Meg said, "You remember the administrator we had at the time? What's his name--Wellington? Napoleon? Whatever. He had this big investigation. Several fifth-graders claimed I attacked Bluefield. The principal called parents trying to get them to twist more information out of the students. It was almost as if he were trying to build up a case against me. He even had several meetings with the parents of the students. Totally nuts. The only thing that saved me was that a couple of the kids who gave the strongest testimony about my alleged attack hadn't even been in the library at the time. One had even been absent from school that day. I only found that out because one of the parents thought the whole investigation was silly nonsense and called to tell me. I found out from her that her kid hadn't been in school that day. It blew over after a week or so, although they still put a nasty letter about the incident in my file, as if I really cared about that."
A few administrators use the teachers' personnel files to get revenge. They can lie on evaluation forms or writeletters that are totally false, and put them into a teacher's file. Essentially a teacher can't do a thing about it. The teacher can write a rebuttal and have it attached to the record, but any stranger reading the file is at least going to have some question about what happened. The most difficult, but probably the best, attitude for most teachers to take is that this is an administrator's petty way of exacting childish revenge and to forget about it. The truth is no one outside the school district can see what's in your file, anyway.
We talked until the bell rang for last hour. Still a little annoyed, I went through the motions of a Seniors Honors English class. Eventually the machinations of Richard II, and explaining them to high-school kids, began to absorb my attention. For the moment I forgot about Bluefield.
At the end of class Georgette Constantine, the school secretary, showed up at my door with a note telling me to meet with Robert Jones, the principal, at four-thirty about the incident with Dan Bluefield.
I had tickets for that night to see Scott pitch in the last game of the season. I didn't want to be late. I asked Georgette if I could see Jones any earlier. She said he had meetings until then.
I sat down to grade papers while I waited. Kurt Campbell, our union president and one of my best friends on the staff, stopped by as he was leaving. I told him about the incident with Bluefield. He told me I didn't have anything to worry about in terms of the contract or the legality of what happened and not to worry about it.
Around four I strolled down to the teachers' lounge to get a can of soda and relax for a few minutes.
Outside the science lab I heard the tinkling of broken glass. I glanced up and down the deserted corridor. Lockers with paint chipping from years of use, lights in the ceiling with fixtures worn and cracked, and a tile floor gray from thousands of trampling kids and scrubbing custodians. All this, but nary a human. Sunshine streamed from a few of the windows in the doors of rooms that faced west.The tinkling came again. I walked to the door of the science lab. Since the lab was on the east side of the building, little light filtered into the room. As I reached for the doorknob, I heard a resounding crash from inside. I hesitated: Should I go for help or barge in?
Suddenly I had no decision to make. The door to the room crashed open. Dan Bluefield stood in front of me. He squawked and backed into the room. I followed. The front of the room was totally intact. But glass-fronted floor-to-ceiling cabinets stretched the entire length of the rear wall of the room, and shards of glass from one of the doors covered three feet of floor in front of it. Upended microscopes and shattered beakers obscured the top of the nearest table.
Then I noticed her, cowering in a corner. A woman in her early twenties, with blood dripping from her nose and a cut on her lip. I recognized her as one of the student teachers from Lincoln University.
"He hit me!" she wailed.
I moved to go to her. When Bluefield tried to block my way, he took his eyes off her, and she darted toward the door and fled down the hall. I hoped she would send help; because I'd moved to help the woman, Bluefield was between me and the door.
"Why, Dan?" I asked.
A switchblade appeared in his hand.
I backed away from him, my eyes frantically searching for the intercom button. I'd been in the Marines in Vietnam, but I wasn't eager to risk nearly twenty-year-old skills against his youth--and a weapon. I might have tried shoving him aside and dashing down the hall for help, but the expert way he held his knife, and his aggressive stance, made it doubtful that such a strategy would succeed.
In the dim light his gray eyes appeared almost translucent. "You want to talk about this, Dan?" I asked.
His response was to begin edging steadily toward me. I spotted the intercom switch in the wall near the exit, under the American flag.
He saw my eyes flicker toward it. He gave a short laugh. "No help coming for you, faggot teacher. I'm going to hurt you a little bit."
"Easy, Dan," I said. "Do you really want to do this?"
"Oh, I really do, Mr. Mason. I really, truly do. I want to hurt you real bad."
"Come on, Dan, give me the knife."
"No way. Not until I'm done." He made a pass in my direction with the weapon.
I moved so that one of the science tables stood between us. I hoped another late-staying teacher might pass the door, making for the lounge, as I had been. Perhaps even some of the kids staying late for clubs or sports who might have a locker at this end of the building. So far I heard nothing.
Dan advanced slowly, keeping himself between me and the door. He tried a brief lunge across the top of a table. It squeaked loudly as the weight of his body shoved it into me. The table's motion startled him and for a moment he tottered and stumbled. I grabbed for the arm with the knife and missed. The table swung again, unbalancing me. He lunged forward. I twisted, dropped to the floor, and felt, more than saw, the knife whish past my ear. I scrambled under a table. He flipped it over. I stood quickly and he came at me. I tried to dodge the knife and tripped over a table leg. As I fell, I saw the knife come slashing down. I threw my right arm up to ward off the blow. The knife tore through my sport jacket and several inches of me. I howled in pain and yanked my arm away. His thrust and my movement unbalanced him, and he fell.
Blind fury and aching pain took over. I was on him in an instant. His youth and energy allowed him to get to his feet, but seconds later I had the hand with the knife in a viselike grip. I heard a snap, the knife dropped, and he bellowed in pain. I didn't stop. Years of training and patience were gone in that instant. I wanted to hurt him, for every taunt, rude remark, stupid smirk, and asshole comment. My fist slamming into his midsection took most ofthe fight out of him. A punch to the kidneys straightened him up. A knee to the groin doubled him back over. I shoved him as hard as I could. He tumbled backwards, slammed into the wall, then, slowing, slid down, coming to rest on his fucked-up teenaged ass.
I heard a rustle in the doorway. Two kids I didn't know stood there, mouths agape, staring at the destruction. "Get help," I ordered.
They disappeared.
I reached the intercom and punched the button for the office. Georgette Constantine came on. Suddenly I realized I was breathing heavily and could barely speak.
"Send help, Georgette," I gasped, "to the science lab."
She recognized my voice. "Mr. Mason, Tom, are you all right?"
"Just hurry, Georgette."
I tore off my suit coat and examined my arm. The cut stretched for four inches about halfway between my elbow and wrist. It hurt like hell, but didn't bleed as much as I expected. Mustn't have hit a vein or artery. I felt woozy for a moment, and instinctively reached out for support. When my right arm hit the wall, I cried out in pain. For an instant, looking at the cut, I saw it went deep, to the bone.
I slumped into the teacher's chair to wait for help to arrive. Dan lay against the wall moaning, using his left hand alternately to try to ease his right wrist, clutch at his midsection, or cup his crotch.
"You busted my wrist, you bastard!"
I felt my anger subside and found guilt and remorse setting in. And then I was angry at myself anew for the last two feelings. The kid had attacked me. What was I supposed to do?
Minutes later janitors, administrators, teachers, and police filled the room. They took Dan off to the hospital. Meg drove me to the emergency room of River's Edge Community Medical Center. After the administration of antiseptic, stitches, bandages, and pain pills, we left the hospital.
She drove me back to school. I needed my briefcasefrom my room. I also wanted to talk to any cops who might still be around.
In the school office Georgette saw me and quickly came over to offer help and kind words. She clucked at the bandages and told me she could drive me home if necessary. I still wanted to get to the baseball game. It was already six, and I felt okay enough to drive. I told her no thanks.
But Jones came to the door of his office. "I want to talk to you. Now, Mr. Mason."
He radiated anger as he seated himself behind his desk in his oversized chair. The most unusual thing about his office was that a bookcase and part of one wall were dedicated to polar bears. Cuddly white stuffed animals in all sizes filled the bookshelves. The pictures on the walls emphasized the mother bears with their cubs. The rest of the office contained a computer terminal, a fake-wood desk, brown-cloth-covered chairs, and a mustard-colored rug with flecks of gold throughout. The window in the wall behind him looked out on the changing leaves of a massive oak tree.
At thirty-one Jones was young to be the principal of one of the largest high schools in the state. He'd been picked for his ability, ambition, and drive.
His opening comment was, "How could you possibly assault a student?"
"Hold it." I held up my arm. "What does this look like to you?"
"Bluefield said you attacked him, and he was just defending himself. The two kids who saw the end of the fight say you threw Bluefield across the room."
"What about the student teacher?"
"A woman from Lincoln University. I've seen her around. Bluefield bloodied her nose and cut her lip. Or doesn't she count?"
He looked doubtful. "She never came to the office. Are you sure you aren't making this part up?"
This was the first administrator I'd met in all my years of teaching who wasn't a fool, who knew his job, who was willing to put in the work to make the school better--and now he accused me of fabricating an attack on a teacher. I felt betrayed. I lost my temper.
"How dare you accuse me before you even hear my side of the story?"
"What we do have is the students at the door who saw you attacking a student."
"Was I supposed to let myself be stabbed and slashed into ground meat?"
"We have policies and procedures to follow when a student attempts to assault a teacher."
"This wasn't an attempt," I said. "This was a success." I found myself yelling at him. Not a bright idea, to yell at your boss, but I was pissed. "You know Bluefield's reputation and you know mine. Yet you believe him. What'd you do, accompany him to the hospital?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. I've talked with him numerous times. We've established a relationship. You were one of the teachers he always complained about. Said you were out to get him."
Some administrators use an odd ploy with troubled students. They get the kid to believe it is the two of them against the faculty, social workers, parents, and any other adult who might possibly want them to obey a rule. The administrator then becomes a "friend" to the kid. What happens then in staff meetings is that the administrator announces proudly that he or she never has any problems with the troubled kid. What it really means is they don't have any hassles with the kid, everybody else does, and the principal can blame everybody else for not getting along with the kid. Happens more often than you imagine.
"You ever talk to his parole officer?" I asked.
"I have spoken with him. He, along with everyone else who's dealt with Dan in the past few months, agrees that the boy has turned his life around. We were trying to help him, which you seem distinctly unable to do."
I couldn't believe all these people had bought the idea that Dan had changed. "I've had more success with troubled kids in the past eighteen years than half the rest of the faculty put together."
"I know about your reputation. I've talked with a number of parents, including the Bluefields. They had a lot of complaints about you. They said they've heard that you harass students, especially the ones with problems. That you're the cause of a lot of kids' difficulties."
I responded with icy calm. "If you've had complaints, why haven't you told me before this?"
"This incident seemed to offer the best opportunity."
"From whom did you receive complaints?"
"I'm not going to tell you their names. It would serve no useful purpose," he said.
"The contract says you tell me who they are or the complaints don't get recognized in any way. Since you won't tell me, I assume the complaints don't exist and you're making them up. If necessary, you'll be dealing with an angry union on this, but even more, I can't believe a principal not backing up his teacher, especially in an assault case."
Noise at the door caused us both to turn. "The police are here, Mr. Jones," Georgette said. "You told me to interrupt as soon as they arrived."
Two detectives walked in. I recognized Frank Murphy. I knew him from when he was with the juvenile division. We'd had some fairly spectacular successes with some very troubled kids. We'd also had our share of failures, kids lost to dysfunctional homes, legal and illegal chemicals, and suicides. I'd thought he was on vacation. Turned out he was leaving the next day.
Introductions done, Frank said, "I talked to the kid. My bet is he's lying."
"I don't think he is," Jones said.
"I do," Frank said. He asked me what happened and I told him.
When I finished, Frank said, "First of all, we've got to findthis student teacher. Second, the kid's fingerprints are on the knife. I believe Tom here."
Jones said, "I'm sure there will be an investigation by the school board into this."
Frank shrugged. "That's nice. As far as the police are concerned this is a pretty open-and-shut case. The kid's a menace. He's been inside the station more than any other teenager for the past two years. If this goes to court, I know who a jury would believe."
Minutes later the cops walked out, leaving a frustrated Jones unable to press charges right then, even if he wanted to. I got up to leave.
His voice stopped me. He spoke loudly, "This isn't over yet, Mason. You may be buddies with the cops, but the school district will have the final say in this matter." His voice softened. "And, Mr. Mason," he said, "I'll thank you never to raise your voice in this office again. I don't accept that kind of treatment from anyone."
I rested my hand on the doorknob. I didn't dramatically shout "Fuck you, go to hell, drop dead." Nor did I apologize. I gazed at his youthful face and said, "I feel sorry for you." If I hadn't banged the door shut, my studied calm might have been more effective.
In the outer office all the lights were out. Through the glass walls I could see Georgette in the hallway, waiting for me.
She wore a light sweater and clutched her purse in her right hand. Her glasses dangled from a chain around her neck. She fluttered to my side. "I heard your voices," she said. "I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but you were both so loud. He better not try to get rid of you, Mr. Mason. He'll have a tough time. The union won't let him get away with it. Let me know if I can help."
I'd been so angry, I hadn't realized how loud we'd been. I said, "Thank you, Georgette. That's very kind."
She moved her head closer, so her lips were only an inch or so from my ear. "I'm scared of him, Mr. Mason. I thinkhe wants to get rid of me. I'm not young and pretty, and I'm sure that's what he wants."
I patted Georgette's arm encouragingly. She might have had a befuddled act that could win Academy Awards, and at least once a year she got involved in some major office screw-up, but her reports for the state were always perfect, the attendance records and budget items correct to the last dot, and she was a helpful refuge for many a bewildered teacher. She could run almost any computer program invented and knew how to explain each one so that even the most befuddled teacher could understand it.
"I think he'd have a tough time firing you, Georgette."
"I hope so." She clutched her glasses in her right hand and shook them at me. "He's been interviewing secretaries these past few days, but I think he wants to bring in his secretary from his last job. I've done a little calling around on my own." She nodded significantly and moved closer. "He deserves to be yelled at. He's always so nice and polite on the outside, but he's a snake."
We walked down the corridor together. I gave her what words of reassurance I could. At the main entrance to the building she turned to walk out to the parking lot, and I trudged back to my classroom.
The lights in the main hall flicked off as I reached the turn by the faculty lounge. A figure emerged from the doorway. By the light from the lounge I could see it was Donna Dalrymple, our resident psychologist. Through clenched teeth she said, "May I see you please, Mr. Mason?"
I agreed. She led the way to her office which was in the new section of the school.
In the past couple of years they'd finished several new wings. This was the newest and the worst. Its roof leaked after heavy rains and since, like all the new sections, it had unopenable windows, so it was totally dependent on the heating and air-conditioning for comfort regulation. The system never seemed to work right. You might get bitter cold in the middle of September because the air-conditioningdecided to stay on high, or you could get Sahara-like heat in early June. The weirdest days were when rooms right next to each other might have completely separate climates. You could step from one to the other and go from rain forest to polar ice cap.
We entered Donna's office. She wore a rust-colored corduroy pants suit over a white blouse and kept her hair swept back from her face in a ponytail. She'd been in the district three years and had alienated nearly every teacher at some point or other. Her basic attitude was that "you poor teachers haven't the faintest idea how to handle these children--only I, a trained specialist, should be allowed to speak to them and deal with them." I generally avoided talking to her.
Nearly every social worker we've had has been a complete gem, brilliant and compassionate, a true miracle worker with troubled children, but according to the rules at Grover Cleveland, the social worker had to take second place to the psychologist.
She tossed the manila folder she'd been carrying into the center of her desk, then faced me with hands on her hips and eyes blazing.
Her office had only interior walls, so no windows gave hope of a world outside. On the cinderblock walls she had posters of rock groups and hot cars. Maybe these made the kids think she was with it and relevant.
She said, "What was the meaning of your attack on Dan Bluefield?"
"I just went through this with Jones."
She rapped her knuckles on the desk top. "You may have destroyed that boy for the rest of his life."
My guilt at what I'd done fled, and total anger returned. I said, "That 'boy' is nearly a man, and he's had far worse happen to him than I just did."
"He's turned his life around. He's reformed. Everybody but you seems to have noticed. What's your problem?"
"Dan is the one with the problem. I can't believe he's convinced everyone that he's now a model citizen."
"I intend to see if we can't file abuse charges against you."
I showed her my arm. "Your little angel attacked me right after he beat up one of the teachers. You believed his story without checking it out."
"I trust him."
The whole scene seemed unreal. I wanted to find that student teacher, if only to burst their bubble of trust in a teenaged delinquent.
"I've been in touch with the parents," she said. "They'll be in first thing in the morning. You'll be lucky if they don't swear out a warrant for your arrest."
I walked out on her. I had no patience for someone incapable of connecting with reality. I had my own emotions to deal with about what happened, and she wasn't helping.
As I walked through the gloomy corridors, thinking about my meeting with Jones, my fury increased. I didn't think the district could do much of substance, didn't think I had much to worry about. A glance at my watch told me I'd be late for the game. I needed to make a call to the ballpark in case the game ended before I got there, so that Scott would know I'd been delayed. The nearest phone was in the office, so I grabbed my briefcase and walked back in that direction.
First I stopped in a washroom. With all the activity I hadn't had time to try and get the blood out of my shirt. I took it off and examined the stain. Probably too dried by now, but I'd give it a try. I ran cold water from elbow to cuff on the left sleeve. Some of the blood washed out. Of course the sleeve was soaked, and I'd have to wear the shirt home wet. Not a bright move.
I trudged down the darkened corridors. The last rays of light from the early October sunset streamed through a few opened classroom doors that faced west. It gave the old place an almost golden glow that for the moment hid the peeling plaster, defaced lockers, and blackening tile. The wood paneling seemed soft and welcoming. The dustmotes drifted in around me. I breathed in that old school smell of chalk and kids.
As I entered the office, I noticed the door to Jones's office was open. I picked up Georgette's phone. The glass windows of the office let me look out on the darkened corridor. The sweep of the headlights, from a car pulling up in the school's circular drive, gave occasional light. In the dimness I had to lean my head close to the buttons on the phone. I glanced up. A car's headlight beam swept past the windows in Jones's office. I caught my breath.
At the edge of Jones's desk I saw a hand, a white shirt cuff, and the beginning of the sleeve of a suit coat. A few steps closer, and I saw Robert Jones with a knife sticking out of his back and massive quantities of blood soaking through his clothing.
I hurried toward him and felt for his carotid artery, hoping for a pulse. I felt cold flesh and not a trace of movement. I hurried from the room, being sure to touch nothing, and dialed the police from the phone on Georgette's desk.
The beat cops arrived in eight minutes. Soon, the crime-lab people, along with detectives and captains, joined the fray. Murder in River's Edge isn't unheard-of, but it's rare. This would definitely cause headlines.
I listened to the cops exchange pleasantries, explanations, and theories, a few of which had to do with the murder and most with who was playing golf with whom and whose turn it was to buy lunch. The beat cops interviewed me and took a statement. The few people still in the building got called in. The police found custodians, and the football team coming in from practice, but not much else.
Georgette came in at seven. She left a half-hour later, giving a fearful look at the cops and sneaking a tender pat to my shoulder as she swept by. The school superintendent showed up at eight. They hadn't been able to reach her because she'd been out to dinner for her wedding anniversary.
About eight-fifteen the cut in my arm began to throb.
At eight-thirty two detectives interviewed me.
The tall ugly one was Hank Daniels. The good-looking young guy with the earring was David Johnson. I'd realized early on it didn't look good: I'd had a fight with Jones. But I didn't know, until they told me, that I'd been the last one to see him alive. Plus I'd found the body, and the dank sleeve of my shirt reminded me that I had bloodstains on it. Not a good combination for establishing my innocence.
Daniels began the interview. "We've heard about you. Dead bodies seem to show up when you do."
Johnson said, "The swish teacher who's always sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong."
Not your basic charm-school interrogation. No matter how hard they pressed, I held my temper in check. I'd been captured by the Viet Cong and held captive for two days. I'd managed to escape, but the memory of the interrogation at that time helped me stay calm now.
Around nine Frank Murphy strode in. They'd kept me in the nurse's office. He sat on the couch they keep for the kids to lie down on. I stayed in the swivel chair behind the desk.
"You're in deep shit," he said.
"Daniels and Johnson were no sweat," I said.
"Sweat is not the problem. You are prime suspect number one. Did you do it?"
"It's bad enough you've got to ask?"
He gazed at me levelly.
"It's that bad," I said.
"Yeah, Tom. I know you didn't do it, and our friendship will probably get you home tonight without a trip to the station, but it's touch and go. The two of them want to arrest you."
"They've got nothing definite. Did anybody see anything?"
Frank shook his head. "According to the interviews, nobody was near this office after you and Georgette Constantine left."
"I wouldn't bet on Georgette," I said. "She's the last one I'd pick as a knife-wielding maniac."
"Somebody around here is," Frank said.
I sighed. "Do you know when I'm going to be able to go? I'm supposed to pick Scott up at the game tonight."
"I'll check." He came back a few minutes later to say I could leave, and added, "We found that student teacher. She looks pretty bad. She was pretty uncommunicative, but I'm sure she'll back up your story. You shouldn't have to worry about the incident with the kid."
I accepted his reassurances and left.
THE PRINCIPAL CAUSE OF DEATH. Copyright © 1992 by Mark Richard Zubro. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.