The Readers, part 2

Posted on: Mon, 10/07/2019 - 06:05 By: the-dilettante

(Click here to read part 1.)

Lawrence Bartram was an older, heavyset man who looked like he had advanced so far into understanding other worlds and faraway times that he had forgotten how to get along in this one. His eyes looked unfocused as if his everyday surroundings were too mundane to spend any time examining them. He sat motionless in his chair and spoke slowly and deliberately. I thought him quite pompous at first, but his expression of regret at his colleague's death seemed sincere and I tried to treat him as a human rather than only a suspect. He told us that he was actually close with Gardner, and that they had many things in commmon in their attitudes and behaviors.

"Of course, I'm the one who found him and reported the death," he was saying, with the slow drawl that teachers who love their own voices tend to develop. "I had been retrieving some documents from my mailbox as I walked by his office, and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of his body lying the floor. Thinking that he might be ill, I let myself in to his office immediately, and quickly discovered that he had no pulse or breath. Of course I called the police immediately and let them do their work. I have cancelled all of my meetings for this afternoon and I am, sirs, at your service for however I may provide aid to your investigation."

He talked like an invitation to a cotillion. Some Americans have never gotten over envy of the aristocratic British and the way they are philologically advanced enough to use words like "ill" and "aid." Besides that he had a textbook writer's habit of never using contractions. I pressed him on his stiltedness. "Your statement, I might say, seems more than a little rehearsed." Guilty people often practice their statements, but if they need to rehearse, their veneer of innocence is brittle and they fall apart as soon as you begin to press them.

"Well, you know, this is a common reaction that professors get. We spend so much of our time carefully putting phrases together, whether for the preparation of publications, or for the clarity required to extemporaneously teach complex concepts." Either he had rehearsed this statement too, or he was actually as articulate as he claimed. I abandoned that line of questioning because when he said the word "publication" I remembered the note signed "LB" in Gardner's office.

"Professor Bartram, did you write a note to Gardner about a publication question of some kind?"

He was clearly taken aback. "Well, you see, I... You are rather direct aren't you? Yes, there's no point denying it. Andrew Gardner was on the editorial board of a top university press. He was trusted enough that they were planning to let him choose what the press was going to publish next. He didn't have any manuscripts of his own ready at the time, so he was looking elsewhere for manuscripts that were worthy enough to be published with his press."

"And did you have a manuscript that you wanted to get published with his outfit?" As usual I tried to get straight to the point.

He hesitated again. "Yes, I did in fact. I have a monograph that I believe is of the highest quality, about the oral histories of the indigenous tribes of Borneo. I have 'shopped it around,' so to speak, with several publishers, but I have been so far unable to generate any interest." He finally moved a little, leaning to the left to grab an unruly pile of papers. "This is a printout of my manuscript so far," he told us with an almost endearing level of pride. "Let me show you the acknowledgements section." He turned the pages in the style of many of the old people I have known, licking his index finger and using the moisture to gain traction on the corner of the page. More of these professorial affectations, I thought.

"You can see here in the acknowledgements section that I thank Gardner for his helpful suggestions. He read my manuscript and gave me positive feedback last year," Bartram told me.

"And did you 'shop it around' to Gardner and his press? Ask him to publish it as a book?" Things were starting to make sense.

Bartram was no longer hesitating, apparently having decided that now that he had started to share some of these details, he might as well share all of them forthrightly. Maybe he was emboldened by the pride of showing off his research. "I did. He told me he would consider my work, but eventually told me that the prospects were not good. Evidently he did not estimate its quality highly enough," he said with a momentary disdainful smirk.

"Would you consider this a high stakes situation?"

"These are the highest stakes we ever really encounter in our academic world. Publication with Gardner's press could be a crowning achievement for an academic career, or a remarkably auspicious start to a student's career." With that, his unfocused eyes started to look shifty.

I pressed on this. "Why do you mention students?"

He could see that he had to answer. "There are two students who were working with Gardner especially closely. Both are in their final year of finishing their doctoral studies. Both have excellent dissertations that could potentially be published either in prestigious journals or even as books. Though, getting published is one thing, and getting published with Gardner's press is another thing entirely. Both of them were hopeful that Gardner would choose his manuscript to publish."

"What were these students' names?" I had my notebook ready to jot down the answer.

"Mislavsky and Edelman. We had a formal habit of going by last names around here. Those two started the program together and have become close friends over their years of study. I believe they are roommates now, in fact."

"So were you referring to your work or their work when you wrote a note asking Gardner to reconsider?" Finally I was ready to get the skinny on the note.

"Gardner did not tell me about his final decision related to the students' work. However, he told me recently that he didn't want to publish either of their dissertations, and instead wanted to look elsewhere for a better manuscript." Bartram seemed exhausted with all this storytelling.

"Why did you care whether he reconsidered about publication? And why did you emphasize in your note that this issue was not a joke?" I asked, trying still to be polite.

Bartram's mien changed. He leaned in closer to me and started speaking more softly, almost conspiratorially, looking at me with eyes that suddenly had a laser focus.

"The truth is, I had begun to feel worried for Gardner's safety recently. There were, well, hints that those two students wished him to come to harm."

"Hints?" I asked. "What hints?"

"Well, it seemed like they were observing him far too closely. I saw them watching him in our parking garage. It seemed to me they were observing what time he usually left the office, where he parked, and what his usual routine was for going and coming. Even more strange, I saw them doing the same type of creepy observation in our reading room. They were watching him as he was innocently reading a book. I thought I saw them taking notes - imagine that, taking notes about how someone reads a book. Again, I saw them observing him far too closely one day at lunch, looking at what he ate and how he ate."

"That is a little weird," I had to agree. But does that really point to them planning a murder?"

Bartram's voice got even softer as he continued. "It's not just that. I overheard them once, talking about murder. Mislavsky was doing most of the talking. I heard him say 'kiling him that way will lead to the whole building burning down and depriving the world of a great book.' I remember those exact words. Depriving the world of a book - it must refer to his dissertation getting refused for publication so most of the world wouldn't get a chance to read it."

I nodded. I could see what he meant. "On the other hand," I pointed out, "the building didn't burn down. It sounds like Mislavsky was talking about torching his office, and causing the whole building to burn down. Whatever killed Gardner hasn't burned down the building." I didn't want to reveal anything about the investigation or my theories, so I was coy as I continued. "Maybe he got hit on the head, causing a dark contusion on his lips, or maybe there was some disease he had that caused problems with blood flow, or..."

"Or?" Bartram interjected. "Well isn't it obvious that it was poison? Gardner must have eaten or drunk some nasty concoction that left that dark residue on his lips. You must have checked his tongue and found the same dark discoloration? I mean, that's what I assume," he added quickly. "Those students had been observing him while he ate lunch. Maybe they found a way to access the lunch he bought today and poison it. He ate or drank something that had some terrible chemical in it."

"Could be." I continued my strategic coyness. "Professor Bartram, you said that Mislavsky and Edelman lived together nearby. Do you know their address? I would love to pay them a visit."

He gave us the address and we left him, with hasty offers of thanks and condolences. I turned to my partner after we had walked out. "Let's see what these students have to say." We started the walk to the students' apartment, and got a call from the beat cop on the case. They had looked at Gardner's tongue and seen some of the same black discoloration that was visible on his lips, especially near the front of the tongue. The coroner was not done with the autopsy but the initial evidence indicated that we were dealing with poison, just as Bartram had said with such certainty.

(Click here to read Part 3.)