"I had to kill them," the murderer
said. "Dont you see? I didnt have any choice. And now, Im
afraid, you have left me without a choice."
The knife was pointing right at my heart, as threatening as any gun would
have been. The killer was maybe six feet away from me, but it would take only
a second to cover that distance.
One second to close the gap between us, two seconds to raise the knife and
plunge it into my chest, perhaps another half a minute for the blade to do
Which left me, I figured, with about 33 seconds left to live.
And thats when I saw her, standing in the hallway, her head cocked prettily
to one side and a question shining in her eyes. What the hell, I wondered,
was she doing there?
And, much more to the point, what the hell would she do next?
While a pair of coeds I didnt recognize were passing
out the test papers, I printed my name and "History 527: Absolutism and
Democracy" and "Final Exam" on the cover of my University of
Michigan blue book and flipped it open. The eager beavers in the front rows
were already scribbling, but I was hidden away at the back of the lecture
hall, by the doors, and it'd be a couple minutes yet before the girls worked
their way up to my neck of the woods. So I just sat there, watching Prof Harriman
give us the eye and trying to convince myself not to worry.
Most of the professors under whom Ive had the always dubious pleasure
of taking classes have brought in elite squads of jackbooted grad-student
storm troopers to proctor their exams for them, so they can hang out in their
offices and sip sherry while we proles sweat through the mental obstacle courses
they dream up for us, but not old D.S. Harriman. No, he was there himself,
in living blubber, all 300 pounds of him. I think he really liked to watch
He had on his usual size-87 dingy-gray suit he only took about an 84,
but he apparently subscribed to the "buy baggy" theory, so people
would think he was busy losing weight and, because it was final-exam
day and a special occasion, his other tie, the one without the gravy stain.
His bald head gleamed moistly under the fluorescent lighting of the hall,
and his jowls quivered with delight as the first howls of anguish began to
rise from the peanut gallery.
Rumor has it that the "D.S." in D.S. Harriman stands for something
Biblical, something along the lines of David Samuel, but we history majors
De Sade, thats the nasty old bastards name. Has to be.
A pile of test booklets reached me from the right, and I took one and passed
the rest on.
Here goes nothing, I thought, and, if I hadn't lapsed into fairly
cynical agnosticism God knows how many moons ago, Idve crossed
myself and sent up a couple of Hail Marys, just to play it safe. As it was,
I sighed out about six quarts of breath I hadnt noticed myself holding
and turned hopefully to the first question:
Discuss democratic theory as evidenced in the writings of Jean Boudin,
the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and Doleman's Conference to demonstrate
that democracy is a justification for revolution.
"Mr. Farmer!" Harrimans bloated baritone boomed at me from
his lair at the front of the room. "You are not, I trust, discussing
this examination with your neighbor?"
"No, sir!" I winced at the accusation. "Just talking to myself,
This was practically the truth. I had not been chatting with the dweeb beside
me when Prof Harrimans eagle eye had spotted my lips aflutter
perish the thought! But I hadn't really been talking to myself, either.
If the truth be told, I'd been petitioning my Maker, and what I'd been saying
was, "Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. . . ."
* * *
"Time, ladies and gentlemen."
I dropped my pen and looked up in shock. Was it two hours already? Must be:
my hand felt like I'd had a hungry lab rat gnawing on it for about 15 minutes
longer than forever.
And there in the distance stood Harriman, fat and rumpled and grinning from
ear to ear. Youd swear the university paid him
a bonus for every one of us he flunked.
He wasnt flunking this boy, though, not this semester. The exam
had been a mother, true, but Id been ready for it. B- at the absolute
worst, and, if the moon was in my seventh house and the Good Lord had been
paying attention to my prayers, I mightve even pulled myself an ace.
The damn thing was over with, at any rate, my final final of the term, so
I was now officially on summer vacation, with nothing whatsoever scheduled
until classes started up again in September three lazy, hazy, crazy
months in the future.
As they so aptly put it during the darkest days of the Reign of Terror: Lassez
les bon temps roulez!
I tucked the test booklet inside my blue book, doubled-checked that my name
was on the cover, and passed the package along towards the aisle.
Stood up and flexed my fingers, hoping to work some circulation back into
my traumatized hand.
Wished a happy summer to a couple people I knew and started moving in the
direction of the doors.
When a deep voice bellowed: "Mr. Farmer!"
I turned back and looked down at him, and he was standing there on the stage,
30 rows before and below me, crooking his Jimmy Dean sausage of a finger with
a fat smile on his face and an evil glint in his beady little eyes.
He couldnt think Id really been asking someone for help, back
at the beginning of the exam period, could he? No way: he didnt know
me well, but he knew me better than that. Well, then, what did the lousy glitter-dome
One way to find out, eh?
I fought against the current of escapees, feeling like one of those sockeye
salmon heading towards the happy spawning grounds only they gotta struggle
upstream, dont they, and I (hopefully not metaphorically, hopefully
not for the third time) was going down.
By the time I reached him, Id scared myself half to death. He thought
hed seen me cheating, the blankety-blanked jerk, and he was going to
rip up my paper and make me take an alternate exam or worse.
"Professor Harriman," I said in a rush, as soon as I got within
range, "I "
But he wasnt sticking around for explanations. He turned away from me
without a word and lumbered up the steps and out the back door of the lecture
hall. I caught it as it was swinging shut behind him, and caught him as he
was stuffing himself into the elevator.
We rode up to the fifth floor in silence; by then, Id figured maybe
Id better keep my big mouth shut until I found out for sure what the
old sleazeball was up to.
He waddled down the long corridor to his office, and from the looks of him
youd swear hed completely forgotten about me. But he did hold
the door open with a corny show of Old World politeness, and as he shooed
me on in ahead of him I wondered if I would ever again emerge to greet the
light of day.
Harrimans "office" was actually just a miserable six-by-eight
cubicle with a single grimy window overlooking the Quad and the other three
walls lined floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves except for the doorway,
of course. There was a battered metal desk heaped high with books and papers,
and a motheaten armchair with spots on it, and what had to be the original
Underwood typewriter collecting dust on a wobbly stand placed at right angles
to the desk. A faintly moldy smell hung in the air, and I wasnt sure
if it came from the books or the furniture or, at these close quarters,
from good old D.S. Harriman himself.
He waved me to the armchair cordially enough, and planted himself in the wide
swivel number behind his desk, selected a pipe from a rack of them and stuck
it between his teeth without lighting it.
"Coffee?" he suggested.
I scanned the office curiously. There was no percolater, there were no cups.
As far as I knew, the only machine in the building was back down on the ground
floor, near the elevator wed come up in.
"Ah, no, thanks," I said.
"Mmmm. So, youre all through for the summer, then, is that correct,
Mr. Farmer?" I could hear him straining to sound
like a human being, and Ill tell you what: if that was his best shot,
I was not impressed.
"Yes, sir," I said, holding up my end of the conversation.
"Do you have plans for your holiday?"
"Plans? Well, no, sir, not exactly. Ill go home, I guess, see the
folks. Pick up a job, maybe, if I can find something where I dont have
to say, Do you want fries with that? 40 times an hour."
He leaned forward and dumped his elbows on his desk and his chins on his palms.
"And your young lady? Patricia, I believe her name is?"
Now, how the hell did he know about Pat? She was an undergrad in English,
no less and she wouldnt set foot in the history department if
Hurricane Andrew came to town and Angell Hall had the only storm cellar on
campus. Who was this guy, a latter-day J. Edgar Hoover?
"We, ah, we came to a parting of the ways about three weeks ago, sir.
I guess your sources are a little late with the information."
Harriman lifted one eyebrow a neat trick, I grant him that and
rumbled, real man-to-man-like, "Problems?"
I sighed. "No, well, not exactly problems, Professor. We tried living
together for a while, only she didnt want to give up smoking and I didnt
want to give up breathing, thats all, so we "
" came to a parting of the ways. I see."
"More or less, sir."
He sat there sucking on his unlit pipe, and one of those sickly silences fell
upon us, like in "Casey at the Bat."
"Uh, Professor Harriman?" I said at last.
He straightened up, then, and put away the pipe. "Im a nonsmoker
myself, these days." He smiled ruefully, if the grotesque shape his lips
twisted themselves into could be called a rueful smile. "Doctors
orders, Im afraid. But I dont suppose you are particularly interested
in the state of my heart and lungs. Let me tell you why I asked you up here
I waited for it.
"I am working on a book, Mr. Farmer my eighth book, in point of
fact. I have been fortunate enough to be able to conduct the lions share
of my research right here at our Graduate Library." (The U of Ms
Ann Arbor campus has three main libraries the Graduate, the specialized
Business Administration Library, and the Undergraduate generally referred
to as the GLib, the BAd, and the UGLi. Bah-dump-bump.) "There is, however,
some intensive work to be done on site. The project will take approximately
two weeks, and I had originally planned to handle it myself, this summer.
But another of my perhaps too-cautious doctors orders prohibits me from
undertaking the significant amount of travelling which would be required.
I am therefore interested in contracting you, Mr. Farmer, to complete my researches
for me. I will pay all of your expenses, of course, plus a stipend of, shall
we say, $500 per week? I would require you to leave immediately, if these
terms are acceptable to you or as quickly as is feasible, if there
are arrangements you must make before departing. You will be back in a fortnight,
having earned the sum of $1000, which I shall pay to you in cash, half in
advance, and you will still have the bulk of the summer at your disposal."
Id like to be able to report that I took this all in my stride, but
the truth is that I may have goggled just a bit. (Okay, a lot, maybe.) It
took me a minute or two to mull the thing over, and, when I had it fairly
well mulled, the only reply I could think of was, "Why me, Professor?
I mean, its not like Im the only one of your students with a head
He smiled again or at least thats what I think it was supposed
to be. "Certainly not, my boy. Anatomically speaking, that is. But your
head, Ive noticed, has for my purposes the distinct advantage of housing
a brain of sorts."
A compliment from D.S. Harriman! Would wonders ever cease?
"Does my proposal appeal to you, Mr. Farmer?"
"Uh, yeah, well, sure." I didnt much like agreeing with this
overbearing doodah about anything, but, hey, he was talking a thousand American
crabcakes, here. "Only, well, where is it you want me to go?"
"To a place called the Begijnhof, in Amsterdam."
I swallowed. "Amsterdam? You mean like upstate New York, right? Near
"Don't be absurd," he said impatiently. "You know perfectly
well that my field is European history. I mean like the Netherlands, Mr. Farmer.
Somehow he didnt seem quite as repulsive as usual when he said it.
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