When Ned Doremus cut the Gordian knot and decided to keep his engagement to speak and sign copies of his new book at Notre Dame, reactions were mixed. For two weeks campus bulletin boards had announced the triumphant return of an alumnus who had achieved literary acclaim before turning 30. His biography of Ambrose Bierce was a nominee for the National Book Award, a featured selection of the History Book Club and first alternate of the Book of the Month. Quarter page ads, underwritten by the publisher, had appeared every other day in The Observer announcing a talk on “Disappearance of an Author.” A scheduling conflict and adverse local reaction gave added interest to the prospective event. Professor Petit of the English department who had notoriously been working on Ambrose Bierce for decades accused the former student of stealing his material.
“I feel that my lecture notes have been published,” Petit said. He was an unkempt man whose beard seemed a sin of omission rather than a conscious decision. The hard gemlike flame of scholarship in his deep-set eyes had dimmed to pedantry and paranoia. In order to take his seminar, students had to sign a quasi-legal document promising not to steal his ideas.
Tracked down in a mall in Denver, Doremus chuckled over the phone. “I never took a class from Petit.”
The irate professor dismissed this. “Doubtless he had accomplices.”
Roger Knight, the Huneker Professor of Catholic Studies and a friend of both Petit and Doremus, was dismayed by the accusation.
“So why doesn’t he sue him?” Philip Knight asked, his body turned toward his brother, but his eyes still on the television screen where Notre Dame was struggling against Georgetown in the Garden. Moving to Notre Dame had been nearly fatal to Phil’s career as a private investigator. He had taken to Notre Dame sports like a compulsive drinker.
“It’s not that simple.”
His enemies accused Petit of dining out on his unwritten definitive book on Bierce throughout his academic career. He had successfully received grant after grant to work on what he promised would be the definitive critical study of the Indiana author whose literary career had begun after serving in the Civil War. The date and place of Bierce’s birth were known but his life had ended mysteriously when he disappeared in Mexico, a disappearance some had thought a publicity stunt. The hostile estimate of Petit was: All windup and no delivery. Others spoke of the need for a long patience if anything worthwhile was to be produced. “Gibbon didn’t write the Decline and Fall in a day.”
“I thought Doremus couldn’t come,” Phil said.
“He had a conflict.” Without checking his calendar, Doremus had agreed to speak at the library in Elkhart, the town that claimed Bierce as a native son, on the same afternoon he was scheduled to appear at the Notre Dame bookstore. His publisher had committed him to Notre Dame but Doremus felt obligated to Elkhart where he had spent some productive weeks in preparing his book. His Elkhart hosts were understandably irate when on short notice Doremus told them he could not be with them on the scheduled night. A telephone conversation had ended on an angry note and was followed by a flurry of e-mails. Elkhart was the city with a heart in it and clearly Doremus had broken it.
Roger Knight had half hoped Doremus would decide in favor of Elkhart and not stir Petit into further excessive reaction. Howard Petit’s mastery of the San Francisco school was uncontested. An evening spent with him was an unequivocal delight. While speaking with Roger, Petit displayed none of the paranoia that had come to characterize his dealings with students and colleagues. At his last Modern Language Association appearance he had abandoned the podium, crying “Thief! Pirate!” when he saw that someone was taping his talk. A plurality of prima donnas is a logical impossibility, perhaps, but a plurality of rivals for the role is possible. Petit’s behavior had made him a pariah among his putative peers.
“Of course I shall attend his talk,” Petit said to Roger, searching his beard in a simian way. “I shall sit in the front row and shame him into silence.”
“Howard, if you have influenced Doremus . . . "
“Influenced! Does a page influence a photocopying machine?”
“Are you saying his book is plagiarism?”
“It’s deeper than plagiarism. He has pilfered my soul.”
Letters to the editor of The Observer were divided on the matter, some siding with Doremus, others with Petit. One disgruntled and anonymous graduate student had calculated that Petit’s total published output on Bierce would not amount to an eighth of Doremus’s book. That summarized the dispute. On the one hand, an actual book, published, available in bookstores everywhere, on the other, a dreamt-of definitive work that had defined Petit’s scholarly life for over a quarter of a century. Apples and oranges had more in common.
Bruce Turnip of the Notre Dame Bookstore in the Eck Center – ‘Eck + Eck = X’ was one of Roger’s less successful mots – had been put in charge of Doremus’s visit. When arrangements were first made, the biographer had promised to be only another in the stream of authors who passed through the bookstore touting their works, signing copies, speaking to a few dozen readers about their careers. But Doremus’s book had suddenly become nationally famous. The local conflict seemed only a plus to Turnip.
“It’s being talked about,” he said to Roger, searching with his tongue for the opening in the plastic cap of his gourmet coffee. “We were holding back copies until the signing but people were buying the book at Barnes and Bubble. We can’t have that. It’s become a phenomenon.”
Turnip finally found the aperture and burned his tongue with overheated coffee.
“It’s not just being talked about, Bruce. Serious accusations have been made.”
“Petit? He’s crazy, isn’t he?”
Roger closed his eyes in pain. “Eccentricity in a professor is to be cherished, not criticized.”
“Why doesn’t he write his own book?”
Perhaps when one’s life is defined by a constant flow of new and ephemeral volumes, another book seems a mere bagatelle. How painful it must be to authors to see their work treated as merely one more grain in the pile left by the sands of time. But when a book has all the allure of the possible, the not-yet-written, a perfect product awaiting just around the corner of time, comparison with actual books might seem obscene. Petit was offended by the indisputable thereness of the former student’s biography of Bierce. How could it compare with the scholarly grail he had been pursuing down the years?
“Howard,” Roger said to Petit. “There are biographies and biographies. I have only just found Max Saunders’ two volume work on Ford Madox Ford. There must have been half a dozen others published before his.”
“There have been popular works on Bierce,” Petit allowed. His chin rose as he sought the best lens in his poly-focal glasses. “Entertainment, not scholarship.”
The solid presence of Ned Doremus’ book on Petit’s desk did not look dismissible.
“I believe there were several previous serious lives of Ford,” Roger said.
“He has stolen my life as well as Bierce’s, Roger.” Petit spoke with an anguish that touched Roger Knight’s heart. “He has wrested the banner from my hands.”
What inflated images the scholar forms of his life’s work. Did Petit fancy he was engaged in warfare, leading the forces of truth and beauty against the Philistines? Then surely he should imagine Doremus on the other side, not usurping his role as leader.
When Roger Knight had been offered the Huneker Chair of Catholic Studies at Notre Dame, he and his brother Philip had moved from Rye, New York, to the campus in northern Indiana. Phil had cut back severely on the jobs he took as private investigator, spinning from one athletic season to another like a drunk making a tour of taverns. Roger’s academic appointment enabled him to put his enormous eclectic fund of knowledge to use; he became an academic free variable, who could offer any course that came under the ample umbrella of his title.
The anonymous letter from the graduate student had suggested that there was disenchantment among Petit’s current students. One afternoon, Priscilla Dexter, a doctoral candidate, came by Roger’s office and asked if they could talk. She had sat in on his F. Marion Crawford seminar. Priscilla closed the door after she had entered and sat when Roger had cleared a chair of books.
“Coming along the corridor, I smelled tobacco,” Priscilla said.
“Decio offices are the last redoubt of the smoker.”
“Do you smoke?” She sniffed the air as she spoke.
Her hands seemed nervous as she lit her cigarette. She expelled smoke without inhaling it, as if the cigarette were a prop. “I wrote that letter to The Observer.”
Roger knew at once that she meant the anonymous letter criticizing Petit for his attacks on Doremus.
“He thinks he owns the things he studies. You know he half resented your seminar on Crawford.”
“I suggested to him that we do it together.”
She puffed again at the cigarette and then looked around. “Can I put this out?”
Roger found an ashtray in a lower drawer and she tamped out the filter tipped cylinder. “The reason I wrote that letter? A friend of mine, my fiancé actually, is writing his dissertation under Petit.” She paused and laughed joylessly. “He has been at it for 11 years. He has tentative approval of two chapters out of a projected seven. If Petit has his way, Germain will never finish.”
Priscilla nodded. “He sat in on your Crawford seminar too.”
“A brilliant young man. I thought he was on the faculty.”
“He has been teaching for years, graduate student slave labor. If it weren’t for his teaching, he might have gone mad.”
Roger was in a delicate position. It would not do to discuss a colleague in this way with a student. It was sometimes difficult to avoid such conversations with other professors, but the line had to be drawn with students, even graduate students as bright and talented as Priscilla.
“Germain can’t bring himself to ask you, but he has talked of little else for months. He wants you to become at least the co-director of his dissertation.”
“What is his topic?”
“The composition of The Devil’s Dictionary.”
Roger would have fallen back in his chair if he had not already completely filled it. A dissertation on Ambrose Beirce! He looked sadly at Priscilla.
“I doubt that Professor Petit would agree to that.”
“But he will never let Germain finish!”
Roger acknowledged in the privacy of his own mind the seriousness of the problem. It was one thing for Howard Petit to grouse about a published book, it was quite another for him to stand athwart the academic career of a young scholar — if that is what he was doing. Roger suggested to Priscilla that Germain should come talk about it with him.
“You mustn’t tell him I spoke to you about it!”
“Can’t you tell him to come see me?”
“He’d guess. Please invite him, won’t you? He is such an admirer of yours.”
The following day, Roger stopped at Howard Petit’s office when he arrived in Decio. Petit’s door was ajar and the acrid smell of tobacco seeped through the opening. There was a gorilla grunt in response to Roger’s knock and Roger pushed the door open. Petit was huddled over an ancient microfilm reader, pipe clinched in his mouth, peering at the scratched and yellowing screen. Finally he looked up. At the sight of Roger, he took the pipe from his mouth.
“His last letters to his editor.” Petit hunched a shoulder at the reader.
“Scholars have professed to find no inkling of his coming disappearance.”
Thus without preamble Petit introduced the topic of Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance in Mexico when he went there as a journalist to cover the uprising of Pancho Villa.
“And you disagree.”
“It’s as plain as a pikestaff.”
One of Petit’s charms was that his clichés were so passé that they had the sound of newly minted metaphors. For 15 minutes he lectured Roger. “First, you extract all the verbs from the sentences. Next the subjects. The trick is to put them together in such a way that the coded message comes through.” Great wit to madness is often near allied. Roger feared for his friend.
“What’s the message?”
Petit hesitated, looking closely at Roger. “I haven’t complete decoded it.”
Had it come to this, that Howard Petit distrusted even Roger Knight? There was nothing mysterious about why Petit was working on this now of course. Clearly he was gathering ammunition for the coming talk by Ned Doremus on Bierce’s disappearance.
“Will you be ready by day after tomorrow?”
Petit looked sly. “We’ll see.”
“I understand Germain Douceur is writing his dissertation with you.”
Petit shook his head impatiently. “Obtuse fellow. It would be quicker if I wrote the thing for him.”
“How long has he been at it?”
“He’ll never finish.”
“He hasn’t the knack for scholarship. He’d rather teach.” Petit said this with some disdain. He seemed to have the view that the university would be a perfect place if there were no students to disturb the work of the faculty. Petit put his pipe in his mouth and blew. There was a gurgling sound and Roger half expected to see brown bubbles emerge from the bowl. Petit threw the pipe on the desk. “He actually told me he thought Doremus had written a good book.”
“Howard, it is not a bad book.”
“That’s because it is full of stolen ideas.”
“You mustn’t say that unless you can prove it.”
“His publisher could take you to court.”
“I would welcome it!”
Roger had come to know Ned Doremus when, on one of his furtive flying visits to the campus during the composition of the Bierce biography, the author had stopped by to see the Huneker Professor of Catholic Studies. Doremus had a vast if shallow command of his subject, but his missionary zeal to make Bierce better known seemed to compensate for the lack of depth. Doremus’ eventual book was good of its kind, certainly no rival to what Petit presumably had been engaged on throughout his career. Petit would have been justified in thinking that the Doremus book was feeble fanfare for his own forthcoming definitive study. But a proprietary sense had taken possession of Howard Petit as if the years he had devoted to Ambrose Bierce gave him squatter’s rights to the man and his works. No wonder he saw Doremus as a usurper.
Before Roger Knight could arrange to meet with Germain Douceur, Priscilla dropped a bomb shell in the academic council of which she was an elected student member. She proposed a motion of censure of Professor Howard Petit for offenses against academic freedom and infringement of the rights of students. The motion was seconded by a philosopher motivated by the palpable resentment of the motion among the other faculty members of the Council. Priscilla explained her motion in terms of the unconscionable attacks by Petit on Ned Doremus and his biography of Ambrose Bierce. As for student rights, she was prepared to submit detailed accounts of unjust treatment of graduate students by Petit. A committee was appointed to look into the matter but soon the word was out, the representative of The Observer having wakened from her nap when Priscilla spoke. Thus it was that, on the day before Ned Doremus was to appear on campus, the front page of The Observer was taken up entirely by the charges made against Professor Petit. Students had been interviewed. Petit’s eccentricities were lavishly described, there was an unfocused photograph of the professor trying unsuccessfully to close his office door on an importuning photographer. At lunch in the University Club Petit was the topic at more than one table. Perhaps even he would have been dismayed at the reputation he had acquired among his colleagues.
Roger tried unsuccessfully to reach Howard by phone. After three rings, the receiver would be lifted and immediately replaced, more noisily each time. Roger rose from his chair like the Hindenberg Zeppelin rising from the Jersey landscape and shuffled down the hall to the elevator and rose to Howard’s aerie on the fourth floor. The door was not ajar. Roger tapped lightly and said, “Howard, it’s Roger Knight.”
Silence. Then noises within. “Who?”
The door opened tentatively. “It is you. Come in, come in.” He gripped Roger’s wrist and pulled him into the room. “I’m being attacked. Accusations are made. What is the meaning of it?”
It was not the moment to tell Petit that none of what he complained of would have happened if he had not himself attacked Ned Doremus. But when the door was shut and the light turned on, it was clear that Petit was defiant still. His furtiveness had suggested fear but it turned out to be cunning.
“They are trying to smoke me out, to show my cards, before I deal with Doremus.” He smiled. “I am not that easily gulled.”
Roger’s heart sank. The glimpse through the half opened door of the apparently beaten Petit had been a far more attractive sight than the indignant scholar buckling on the armor or righteousness.
“I will crush him, Roger. Crush him.”
“You’d do better to avoid the talk. You and I could have dinner . . .”
Petit shook away the suggestion. “You must come with me to the talk. As my second.”
In whatever capacity, it was clear to Roger that he could not avoid the great confrontation between Howard Petit and Ned Doremus.
That evening Ned Doremus telephoned the Knight apartment.
“You’ve already arrived?” Roger asked.
“I thought I’d come early.”
He was at the Morris Inn and without plans. Phil offered to pick him up but Doremus had rented a car and came on his own and soon the Knight brothers and the young author were gathered around the table enjoying Roger’s Risotto Milanese, salad, garlic bread and Chianti. Roger who took no alcohol was drinking ice water.
“What a life!” Ned said, looking around the apartment enviously. Every wall was lined with shelves, every shelf was full of books, one of the bed rooms had become Roger’s study. Phil had an enormous television set, usually tuned to some athletic contest. “I’d have lived in a place like this if I’d done graduate work,” Doremus mused. “Of course I would have shared it with three other students.”
“Did you consider graduate work?”
“For maybe three minutes. You know I majored in philosophy, not English. I loved literature too much.”
“I didn’t have the talent to become a professional philosopher. So I decided to be a writer.”
Doremes had a narrow head, straight black hair that fell from a part in the middle, and large liquid eyes. “Is Professor Petit still calling me a thief?”
“He intends to crush you tomorrow. He bas been boning up on Bierce’s disappearance.. He thinks he can show that Bierce indicated he meant to disappear.”
“Of course he did.”
Doremus wagged a finger. “For that you will have to hear my talk.”
The evening passed pleasantly enough but Roger was filled with foreboding. It is bad enough to have a friend attacked by an enemy, but when that enemy was another friend, thoughts of Purgatory came easily. Doremus too was uneasy but for another reason, one stemming from the fact that he had canceled the Elkhart Library appearance in favor of the Notre Dame bookstore. He handed Roger a letter. It was signed by Regis Yoder and was a protest against Doremus’s decision against Elkhart. Written with such passion that the first page was covered by a single outraged sentence, Yoder accused Doremus of perfidy, treachery, dishonesty and a host of lesser sins. He promised to blacken Doremus’s reputation from coast to coast with every means available to him. The letter ended with an apt quotation from The Devils Dictionary. “Present, n. That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.”
“Damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” Ned sighed, but what author could fail to take some pleasure from so persistent an admirer?
“Couldn’t you reschedule?”
“You see what he says of the expected turnout. He doubts they could ever again gather such an audience again for a writer who had spurned them once.”
“You could still cancel here.”
“Elkhart over Notre Dame?”
The successful writer’s life seemed suddenly fraught with peril. Adulation turned thus swiftly to abuse. Yoder had been behind the invitation from Elkhart, he had worked tirelessly to publicize the lecture and now he was told that all his efforts were in vain, dashed by Doremus’s whimsical decision. It was Yoder’s considered opinion that a horsewhipping was too good for such an author as Ned Doremus.
The Notre Dame bookstore under the regime of Kathy McGowan treated visiting authors with flattering deference. A podium and rows of chairs were set up among the T-shirts and memorial mugs, a table stacked with copies of Doremus’s work was ready for the author when he signed books for avid purchasers, and throughout the day of the talk announcements over the loud speaking system supplemented and re-enforced the printed publicity. Every hour on the hour a reminder of the lecture was broadcast on WSND, read by a halting disk jockey who had cut his spurs mispronouncing jacket copy on classical music.
A half hour before the scheduled talk all the chairs were claimed and Bruce Turnip and his assistant Jonathan were unfolding and arranging more. It promised to be a boffo event. Insofar as the verb could be applied to one of his massive avoirdupois, Roger sidled into the lecture area and claimed an end seat in a recently established row of chairs. Bruce Turnip was in earnest conversation with a tall man wearing a baseball cap and lumberman’s jacket. Turnip seemed to be trying to free himself from the colloquy. The man pressed a piece of paper into Turnip’s hand and Bruce made his escape. The man then glared about before leaving the area. The cap he wore bore the legend Cubs. One of nature’s losers. And a hostile presence. But not so hostile as that of Howard Petit who, as promised, had established himself in the middle of the front row and was hunched forward, hands gripping his knees, a boxer awaiting the bell for the start of the fight. An expectant hum rose from those occupying the chairs. And then, finally, around a bookshelf came Bruce Turnip followed by Doremus, and a burst of applause went up. Petit seemed to get a fresh grip on his kneecaps.
Turnip motioned Doremus to a chair and came to the podium. He seemed to become aware of the slip of paper he had been handed by the man in the Cubs hat and turned and handed it to Doremus. Once more at the podium, he began an unctuous introduction. The author’s eyes were lowered in what might have been modesty, but he was reading the slip of paper Turnip had put into this hands. Finally, Turnip finished and welcomed to the podium our own Ned Doremus speaking on The Disappearance of an Author. When Doremus stepped to the podium, he whispered in Turnip’s ear and then disappeared behind the bookcase around which he had recently come before his audience. Turnip smiled nervously, cleared his throat, seemed about to explain, then said, “Mr. Doremus will be right back.”
Minutes passed, Turnip fussed at the podium and his nervous humming was audible through the microphone. He looked up from time to time and smiled at some distant point where lines of explanation possibly converged. Finally, he excused himself and went in search of Doremus. More minutes passed.. At last a clearly shaken Turnip reappeared, stood at the podium and looked out at the audience with fuddled embarrassment.
“I can’t find the speaker.”
Howard Petit was first on his feet. He turned and looked with triumphant scorn at the audience and then strode away with the air of Napoleon leaving the scene of yet another victorious battle.
Within an hour of the disappearance of Ned Doremus, Father Carmody, deputized by the provost, had brought Philip Knight, in his capacity as private investigator, into the case.
“A kidnaping is a federal offense,” Phil said.
Father Carmody winced. “Of course it will have to be reported, but was it a kidnaping?”
“If it was you don’t want to delay reporting it too long.”
“See what you can find out.”
That the university should want to avoid having whatever had happened to Ned Doremus from becoming the news of the day was understandable enough. Phil agreed to get over to the bookstore and see what he could find out, but he was clearly made uneasy by the thought of delaying to report the event. “Roger went to the talk, Father.”
“Where is he now?”
“He was going to call when he wanted to come home. The battery on his golf cart was dead and he didn’t have time to recharge it, so I drove him over.”
The bookstore was humming in the aftermath of the lecture that had not been given and the author who had disappeared. When Phil explained why he was there, a distraught Turnip took him down the hall to his office and closed the door.
“Where is my brother Roger?”
“He’s around some place.”
“Tell me what happened.”
The story was soon told. Turnip had led the speaker from his office, introduced him and, when Doremus stepped to the podium he had whispered that he was going to the men’s room and disappeared. Turnip had the look of a man whose tidy world had just been turned upside down.
“Was it a trick?”
“A joke. The title of the talk was The Disappearance of an Author, wasn’t it? Maybe it’s a bit of show and tell.”
That Doremus might have played such a trick on him angered Turnip. “It better not be a joke,” he said menacingly.
When Phil had heard all Turnip had to tell him, he asked if there was an exit in this part of the building. Turnip jumped from his chair and led Phil down the hall to an emergency exit. The message on the door was one that got Roger chortling whenever he saw it. This Door is Alarmed. Turnip pointed. “If he went out that way, he would have set off the alarm.”
Phil in turn pointed to a power cord that had been pulled from the wall socket. “Apparently not.”
He pushed through the door and outside and there was Roger wandering around in the semidarkness. He showed little surprise at the appearance of his brother and Turnip.
“Did you deactivate the alarm, Roger.”
“Someone else already had. I found this.”
He handed Phil a crumpled piece of paper and the three men went inside where there was light. Phil studied the note, then looked at Roger. “Did you read this?”
“It seems to be a threat.”
“I handed him that!” Turnip cried “Someone asked me to give it to the speaker.”
“A man in a baseball cap?” Roger asked.
“Did you recognize him?”
“I never saw him before in my life.”
“I think his name may be Yoder,” Roger said.
“How do you know that?” Phil said, but without surprise. Roger had stopped surprising him long ago.
“He was the irate man from the Elkhart library.”
Turnip was sent to look up Yoder in the Elkhart directory while the Knight brothers went outside again to continue the search of the grounds.
“He might have dropped the note as a clue,”Philip said. “Father Carmody won’t like it but we’re going to have to report a kidnapping.”
But there was something worse they would have to report. Although he was moving carefully, it was not quite so dark as they neared the parking lot, and Phil tripped over the body of Ned Doremus as he avoided tripping over the curbing. He knelt by the fallen author and held a lighted match with one hand while he searched for a pulse with the other. Roger made the identification.
“May he rest in peace.”
The emergency door opened, throwing a column of light across the lawn. “There are hundreds of Yoders in the Elkhart phone book!” Turnip called despairingly.
“It’s Regis Yoder,” Roger said to Philip.
Roger stayed by the body while Phil went inside to notify the local police.
Within an hour, the area had been taped off, Lieutenant Mastiff had arrived from downtown, and half a dozen uniformed policemen, some members of the Notre Dame constabulary, kept the curious at bay while the medical examiner’s crew determined that the body was indeed dead. There was an ugly wound on the side of Doremus’s head: The area was being searched for a murder weapon. Roger drew Philip aside.
“Why don’t you and I run over to Elkhart.”
“To talk with Regis Yoder.”
“I’ll tell Mastiff we’re leaving.”
How deferential to the police Phil had become as his career as private investigator atrophied at Notre Dame. But Roger agreed that the South Bend detective should be told they were leaving.
On the drive, Roger called up the directory for Elkhart on his laptop and got the address of Regis Yoder. Half an hour later, Phil pulled into a driveway, stopping behind a pickup already parked there. Before going to the door, Phil put in a call to Mastiff at the scene of the crime.
“We may have your man,” Phil said when Turnip brought Mastiff to the phone.
“Where are you?”
Mastiff spoke over the phone a technically illegal bit of profanity. “They can make the arrest.”
He meant the Elkhart police. “Maybe we should wait in the van until they get here, Phil,” Roger suggested.
“Yoder might have heard us drive up.”
With something a good deal short of agility Roger extricated himself from the passenger seat, lowered himself to terra firma, and wobbled toward the front door on which Phil was already beating. Phil was about to pound on the door again when it was jerked open and a man wearing a Cubs baseball cap glared out at him.
After a jurisdictional quarrel between Mastiff and the Elkhart police, Yoder was taken to South Bend for questioning. If he was put out by the inconvenience or by the suspicion leveled at him, he hid it behind a self-satisfied smile. He admitted having been at the Notre Dame Bookstore for Doremus’s lecture.
“Which didn’t take place,” he added.
“But you left before the speaker was introduced.”
“Is that a crime?”
“You left after passing over a note for Doremus.”
Regis Yoder said nothing.
“Did you leave a note for Doremus?”
“I just wanted to put the fear of God into him.”
The baseball bat discovered in the bed of Yoder’s pick-up decided Mastiff. He put Yoder under arrest.
“What’s the charge?”
“Leaving a lecture early.”
The actual charge was threatening bodily harm, pending further investigation. The next morning, the lab reported that it was possible that the baseball bat was the murder weapon. The charge against Regis Yoder was raised accordingly.
And so the case seemed closed. Phil and Mastiff spoke antiphonally, reconstructing the crime. Yoder had motive. His efforts to persuade Doremus to keep his original engagement in Elkhart had failed. He had come to Notre Dame with the intention of exacting revenge. The note he passed to Doremus through Bruce Turnip had sent the author scuttling for safety. But Yoder, who had exited the main entrance and circled the building, was waiting for him with his baseball bat. Doremus ran toward the parking lot, but the irate Yoder caught up to him and struck the lethal blow. Mastiff was sure that an examination of the area in the light of this hypothesis would verify it. Roger listened and said nothing.
Phil was anxious to get back to an NBA final that was being played on the West Coast. “I can catch the last quarter at least.”
In the morning, Roger went once more to Howard Petit’s office. The professor was not in, but his door was open. Roger stepped inside, left the door open and sat, thinking long thoughts. And then Petit returned. He closed the door and stood with his back against it. He looked terrible.
“What a dreadful thing, Roger.”
“I feel responsible. I must have inflamed someone against the young man and they acted as my instrument.”
Petit fell into his chair, and looked confusedly about. “Of course it’s ridiculous. Why should I have wanted to prove a tyro is a tyro.”
“Howard, you were seated in the bookstore when it happened.”
“That doesn’t matter. I struck the blow.”
“Did you know Regis Yoder?”
“Who is he?”
“The man the police think struck the blow.”
“Nonsense. I must speak to them.”
Roger spent half an hour easing Howard Petit out of the role of spiteful murderer. Petit seemed to have been reading the charges leveled against him in The Observer and to have found them apropos. Finally Roger convinced him that he ought not go to the police.
“Perhaps, perhaps. A sin of thought is not a crime.”
Germain Douceur was standing in the hallway outside Roger’s office door. He looked abject.
“Can we talk?”
Roger got the graduate student seated in his office and waited. Douceur suddenly sobbed. “It was supposed to be a joke.”
“On Professor Petit. I got in touch with Doremus when that issue of The Observer appeared. Apparently you had told him that Petit was boning up for the lecture. That gave him the idea. He would talk about Bierce’s disappearance but illustrate it first. After 20 minutes, he was to return and give his talk to an audience half baffled by his own disappearance.”
“What was your role?”
“Deactivating the alarm on the door so he could get out of the building without setting off a siren.”
“And he did get out.”
Roger had a sudden fear that Germain would now confess to hitting Doremus on the head, but that made no sense.
“As he ran toward the parking lot, I called after him. He turned almost completely around but kept running. He tripped, stumbled, and fell.” Douceur leaned toward Roger, fixing him with bloodshot eyes.
“And that was it?”
“He got to his feet and came toward me. Then he pitched forward. I tried to help him up and then I saw how seriously he was hurt. I managed to lift him and drag him a way but he had become dead weight and I dropped him. Then I panicked.”
Douceur fled to his room and it was there that he learned that Doremus was dead.
“I should have called for help. But I was afraid.”
“If Professor Petit knew I had been colluding with an author he considered his enemy . . .” His voice trailed off and in his eyes the prospect of an endless future as the indentured servant of Howard Petit swam among the tears.
“We must call the police. They are holding an innocent man.”
Mastiff gave way only grudgingly. The lab’s judgment that the baseball bat was the weapon had been tentative and was now withdrawn. Roger meanwhile had rambled around the area where the body had been found. He was drawn to the concrete curbing that edged the parking lot. He lowered himself carefully to his knees and stared at a spot on the curb that was discolored. After some minutes, he rose slowly and went to telephone Mastiff. The lab’s judgment this time was unequivocal. The blood on the curb was Ned Doremus’s. That he had received the lethal injury on the back of his head was explained by Douceur’s calling after him, causing him to turn round so that when he stumbled he fell backward and his head struck the curbing.
“The dissolving of a crime,” Roger said to Mastiff. The lieutenant just glared at him. Phil led his brother away.
Later, devouring one of Roger’s casseroles, Phil frowned. “Why did Regis Yoder write that threatening note?”
“Its message was actually another quote from Bierce. From The Devil’s Dictionary.” Roger got out the book and showed the passage to Phil. “Preference, n. A sentiment, or frame of mind, induced by the erroneous belief that one thing is better than another.”
“That isn’t what the note said,” Phil complained.
“It goes on.”
Phil continued reading: “An ancient philosopher expounding his conviction that life is no better than death, was asked by a disciple, why then, he did not die. ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘death is no better than life.’ It is longer.”
Phil stared at his brother.
“Ambrose Bierce is an acquired taste,” Roger said.
And sometimes a fatal one.
Ralph McInerny is the Michael P. Grace chair of philosophy at Notre Dame and the author of several mystery novels, including the Father Dowling series.