The sun was just appearing over the tops of the trees lining the banks of the creek, and although it was not quite eight, it was obvious that today was going to be another scorcher. I met no one as I hiked up the hill toward the imposing building housing the administrative offices of the Lickin Creek College for Women. But this wasn't surprising since I knew the enrollment was fewer than two hundred students, most of whom I assumed were still in bed- where I wished I were.
On the footbridge over the Lickin Creek, I paused for a moment to catch my breath. Wishing I'd worn sneakers instead of my unsubstantial Italian sandals and something cooler than my dark blue dress, I rested my elbows on the rail and watched a pair of ducks floating on the sparkling water a few feet below me. I was to meet with the police, the president of the college, the president of the borough council, and who knew who else, to discuss yesterday's tragedy. The prospect made me more than a little nervous.
Although I had the urge to linger, I knew I was only delaying the inevitable. I had to make my appearance and face the music. My attempt to get some good PR for the Chronicle had turned into the worst disaster in Lickin Creek history. As the lone outsider involved, I was pretty sure I knew where the blame would be laid. After taking a deep breath, I continued my march up the hill.
The yellow police tape enclosing the grassy lawn didn't stop me for a minute. I ducked under it and kept going. A man in the gray uniform of the campus security force yelled at me, but I acted as if I didn't hear him. After the hike I'd just taken, I wasn't about to risk any more blisters by detouring around to the back of the building. I shuddered as I skirted the shallow grave, six feet long and three feet wide, for it brought back in vivid detail the ghastly events of yesterday afternoon. I paused once more to let my pulse rate subside, and while I waited for the pounding in my chest to stop, I feigned interest in the tall white building, complete with turrets, gingerbread trim, and a mansard roof and vowed, once again, to start a diet and maybe even an exercise program on Monday.
To get into the building, I had to push my way through a mob of television reporters. On the porch, a woman I recognized from one of the Harrisburg TV stations was speaking to a video camera. She looked hopefully at me as I climbed the steps, but I shook my head and pulled open the massive oak door.
Since no one was expected to enter through the front door today, I wasn't surprised to find no one at the reception desk.
“Yoo-hoo,” I called. My voice echoed in the high-ceilinged hall. “Anybody home?”
An enormous black door on my right opened, and a woman's head popped out. “Shhh!” she warned with a frown that caused her half-moon reading glasses to slip off her nose and dangle from a chain around her neck. I recognized her immediately as Helga Van Brackle, the Dean of Student Affairs.
She slipped through the door, letting it close quietly behind her, and said, “Please hold your voice down. We're having a meeting. I assume you know about Saturday's unfortunate incident.”
She obviously didn't remember meeting me. I stuck out my hand and said, “I'm Tori Miracle, the editor of the Chronicle.” I loved the way the title rolled off my lips. “If by ‘unfortunate incident’ you mean Representative Macmillan's being shot to death by a firing squad in front of this building yesterday, I certainly am aware of it. But I think I'd use a stronger phrase than ‘unfortunate incident.’ ”
“Did you say you were from the Chronicle? We have no comment.”
“I'm not here for statements. I'm here to attend the meeting.”
Her eyes widened as it finally dawned on her who I was. She tried to cover up. “Why, Toni, of course. We've been expecting you.”
“It's Tori,” I said.
“Come right in. We're just getting organized. Still waiting for that new police chief to show up.”
Helga patted her short steel-gray hair, plucked an invisible piece of lint from her navy blue suit jacket, replaced her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and opened the door to the meeting room. “Come in,” she said, holding the door open. I stepped inside to a room where some grim-faced individuals sat around an oval table.
“About time,” someone muttered. I glared at him. The meeting was supposed to start at eight, and according to the antique grandfather clock in the corner I was seven minutes early.
“Anybody seen Janet this morning?” a woman asked.
“I did,” a man said. “She was on her way to the basement for coffee.”
“Someone go get her,” Helga Van Brackle snapped.
“I'll go,” I volunteered. I'd already noticed there was no coffeepot in the room, and I figured I could get a cup from wherever Janet was getting hers.
“Better take the elevator,” the man said. “It's faster than the stairs.”
“No it isn't,” the woman contradicted. “Damn thing sticks half the time.”
I left while they argued.
Rising up from the left side of the hallway, near the back, was a circular staircase with a bronze goddess serving as the newel post. Looking up through the hollow center of it, I saw metal rods at each landing, extending across the empty space. When I realized they were braces placed there to keep the staircase from collapsing inward, I decided to use the elevator.
The elevator was a marvel of turn-of-the-century engineering, with a brass grille I had to pull shut by hand. It creaked slowly to the basement, and I stepped into a dim area, nearly conking my head on the overhead tangle of pipes. I spotted a row of snack machines at the end of the long, dark hallway. In front of them was a small round table, and seated at the table was Janet Margolies, along with two other young women. All three looked startled when I appeared out of the shadows.
“Oh my, that dress! I thought you were a ghost!” Janet gasped. They all laughed nervously.
What an odd thing to say, I thought. Did ghosts wear navy blue dresses? Janet introduced me to one of the younger women, a pretty ponytailed brunette who was in her early twenties. “My assistant, Lizzie Bor-den,” Janet said, and looked at me as if eagerly awaiting my reaction to the name.
“Okay,” I said. “I'll play along. What were your parents thinking of?”
Lizzie giggled. “Not that their precious baby daughter Elizabeth would grow up to marry Timothy Borden.”
I shook Lizzie Borden's hand and asked, “What was your maiden name?”
“Swineheart. I think Borden's an improvement, don't you? This is Jennifer, today's receptionist.” She smiled at her younger companion, who grinned back. “You don't need to remember her name-she won't be here tomorrow-too competent-actually knows what she's doing-probably be fired by lunchtime.”
I shook Jennifer's hand, which felt a little peculiar.
“Sorry,” she murmured. “Just finished a sticky bun.”
I knew about sticky buns, a favorite Pennsylvania Dutch treat: yeast dough, slathered with real butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts, then rolled, sliced, and baked in a mixture of melted butter, brown sugar, and pecans. A sticky bun served warm with the sugar-butter mixture dripping onto your fingers was food fit for the gods. Also, it was guaranteed to go straight from the lips to the hips in a matter of minutes. Yes, I knew all too well about sticky buns.
Janet glanced at her watch. “Guess it's time.” She waited while I got a cup of coffee from the machine, and then we rode the creaky elevator to the ground floor.
“You're late,” Helga said as we entered the room.
“I was in the middle of something important.” Janet winked at me and sat down.
While I'd been gone, some more people had arrived. I took the only empty chair, across from Luscious Miller, who looked nervous. It was odd to see Luscious wearing the chief's uniform. I knew the young man had absolutely no confidence in his own abilities, and smiled reassuringly at him.
Marvin Bumbaugh, the borough council president, sat at the head of the table next to the college president. He didn't look quite as important in these surroundings as he did when presiding over council meetings.
It was a small and very serious-looking group who sat around the grand table. Besides President Godlove, Helga, Marvin, Luscious, Janet, and myself, there were only three other people present: the vice-president of the college, the head of campus security, and Professor Ken Nakamura, who was sitting to my immediate right. He smiled at me and said, “Be wary of the dragons, although they generally produce more smoke than fire.”
I guessed from the way he spoke that nobody else in the room understood Japanese, and I bowed my head to acknowledge the wise advice of my elder.
“If you're quite finished, Dr. Nakamura…” Helga said briskly, “I'm sure President Godlove would like to get on with our meeting.”
The twinkle in Ken's eyes was more than light reflecting from his glasses as he bowed toward her. “I am, as always, your humble servant, madam.”
I'd been wrong about one thing-they weren't laying all the blame on me. And oddly, I thought, campus security wasn't picked on at all. Poor Janet was the target of most of their fury.
The questions rained down upon her. Though she tried valiantly to answer them, nobody gave her time to finish a sentence.
“Why was Macmillan playing the condemned man?”
“He asked to-”
“Who loaded the guns?”
“Two of the reenactors-”
“What were their names?”
“Woody Woodruff. And his helper, Darious De-Shong.”
“When were the guns loaded?”
“Friday night. Woody said he wanted to do it himself. For safety's sake.”
“Why weren't they locked up?”
“They were. In the basement storeroom. I locked the door myself.”
“How many keys were there? Who had them?”
“There are only two keys. I had them both with me all night.”
“Could someone have picked the lock?”
“It was still locked on Saturday morning. It's an old-fashioned kind of lock-takes a key to both open and lock it.” She opened her purse and produced a ring with a pair of keys dangling from it. “They're still here. See.”
“Did you watch the man load the guns?”
“Of course I did. Lizzie was there, too.”
“And you're positive the guns were loaded with blank bullets?”
“They didn't use bullets at all. Woody explained that they use black powder and Wonder Wads to keep it from falling out for reenactments.”
“What the hell are Wonder Wads?”
“That's what the men called them. They looked like big foam-rubber ear plugs.”
“Where were the reenactors when you arrived?”
“In the hallway waiting for me. We all then waited together until Mack Macmillan arrived.”
“Who…? Why… Where…? How…?”
The questions flew furiously over the tabletop, but instead of answering any more, Janet gasped, grasped her abdomen, and moaned.
The Lickin Creek Volunteer Fire Department ambulance arrived in record time and left for the hospital in Gettysburg with Janet in the back.
After that flurry of activity, when everyone was settled, President Godlove looked directly at me and said, “So, young lady, since you insisted on cosponsoring this event, it looks like this is now all your responsibility. Let's hear what you're going to do about this disaster.”
And the questions started again, only I had no answers. Luscious looked sympathetic, but offered no help. I knew there really was nothing he could do; I was in this one on my own.
I had no idea of what time it was when I staggered out of the meeting. President Godlove had entrusted me with the job of quietly looking into the disaster, probably because he figured if I was involved in the investigation, I wouldn't be writing nasty articles about the sorry event. I stopped at the desk and asked Jennifer, the receptionist, to direct me to Janet's office. I'd been given carte blanche to go through her files and get the names of everybody who had been involved in the reenact-ment.
The elevator carried me to the top floor of the building.
“Nice garret-for a starving artist,” I remarked, looking around the public relations office. All the meetings I'd attended for planning the reenactment had been downstairs in a Victorian parlor. Now that I saw Janet's office, I understood why we hadn't met here. The ceiling came down nearly to the floor on the outside wall, and the only window was in a dormer that looked like an afterthought. The wall below it was water-stained and blistered.
Lizzie laughed. “Our department is regarded as a necessary evil, not an important part of the college hierarchy. We just does our job and keeps our mouths shut. How about a cup of coffee?”
She ducked through a low doorway into another room and reappeared a moment later with two mugs of coffee. “It's better than that stuff in the basement machines but kinda strong.”
I sipped the coffee and nearly gagged. Didn't anybody in Lickin Creek know how to make decent coffee? Maybe I should give up journalism and open a Starbucks. “Do you have any milk?”
Lizzie brought me a jar of powdered whitener. I stirred a liberal amount into my coffee mug and tasted the brew again. It didn't help at all. “It's fine,” I fibbed as Lizzie anxiously watched me. “Any word from the hospital about Janet?” I asked.
“Yes, mother and child are doing just fine, thanks to God and no thanks to Godlove.” The way the phrase fell from her lips made me think it was used often in the college's PR department, and quite possibly in the whole college.
“She only had one baby?”
Lizzie giggled and nodded. “Poor Janet's got a lot of weight to lose.”
“Why is the college blaming Macmillan's death on Janet?” I asked. “Surely, the reenactment wasn't all her idea.”
Lizzie shook her head. “You'd think none of them have ever heard the word accident. I guess they're putting the blame on her because she was ordered to come up with something different for Parents’ Weekend. And she did.”
“I'll say it was different!”
“The college desperately needs some good publicity. Our enrollment is under two hundred and still shrinking. Janet thought staging a mock Civil War execution would get us a lot of press.”
“It certainly did, but I don't think this kind of publicity is going to bring any students in,” I said.
“I'm afraid you're right. Half a dozen girls left with their parents this morning. Including the senior who played the prisoner's wife. Her parents said she was so traumatized, she'll probably need years of therapy. Which, I'm sure, the college will have to pay for.”
“I wonder what made Janet think of staging an execution? It's something that would never cross my mind.”
“We saw one last summer over in Gettysburg. She hired the same people to do it here. Except for Mack Macmillan, of course. He has, I mean had, an office across the hall, and when he learned of our plans he burst in here saying he thought it would be great fun to play the victim. He reminded Janet he was very well known, which was true, and that we'd get a lot of notice with him participating. Janet didn't have any choice; she had to agree.”
“Why?” I asked. “He was way too old for the role.”
“Because Macmillan is, I mean was, the chairman of the college's board of trustees, a position he assumed at the beginning of this semester. And like the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla-the chairman of the board of trustees can do exactly what he wants to do.
And what he wanted to do was participate in the reen-actment since he's a big-time Civil War buff. You do know that he was also a retired U.S. congressman? That's what got him on the board of trustees in the first place.”
“I can understand why he might want to participate. What I don't understand is how real bullets got into the guns. Lizzie, were you there Friday night when the guns were loaded?”
“Could you please tell me exactly what happened?”
Lizzie sat down on the ugliest sofa I've ever seen and patted the seat beside her, raising a little cloud of dust. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I picked it up at the Goodwill. Cheap. Now I know why. Have a seat. I'll try to tell you everything.”
I sat on the sofa and found it smelled nearly as bad as it looked. “Go on,” I said.
“Like I told Chief Miller yesterday afternoon, Janet and I went out for hamburgers at about five. When we came back, the building was deserted or seemed to be. Nobody in their right mind sticks around here after dark. We wouldn't have been here either, except we were waiting for the reenactors to bring the guns.
“There were two of them. One guy was big and fat, with a bushy beard. The other was younger and pretty much of a hunk. They each carried a big box, full of guns, we found out later.”
“Did Janet know who the men were?”
“Sure. At least she knew the big one. I forget his name, but it's in my file cabinet. We stood around the lobby for a while chatting, then the five of us took the elevator down to the basement.”
“Five of you? You only mentioned four: you, Janet, and the two reenactors.”
“Mack Macmillan came with us, saying he wanted to ‘savor the entire reenactment experience.’ As usual, he was late, but not as bad as yesterday, only a couple of minutes. He didn't have any reason to think so highly of himself-it's not like he was a senator, you know. Just a congressman. That's not nearly as important, is it? And he's been retired for more than a year. Anyway, Janet unlocked the door to the storeroom where we had already decided to keep the equipment and let us in.”
“Why was the door locked before the guns were put in the storeroom?”
“Things used to disappear. You know how it is, a box of thumbtacks, a ream of paper, a case of ballpoint pens. After Janet put a lock on the door, the pilferage stopped.”
“I noticed keys hanging on hooks next to the door as I came in. Is that where you keep the storeroom key?”
“No. Those are for the other doors on this floor. Offices, mostly empty, and the rest rooms. People kept misplacing their keys, so Janet said she'd keep a spare set here. But she always kept our keys in her purse.”
“You didn't have a key to the storeroom?”
Lizzie shook her head. “I'm not saying she didn't trust me, but she made a point of keeping both keys. I had to ask her for them every time I needed to replace a pencil.”
“I see. So what happened after the door was opened?”
“The reenactors opened the gun boxes, then the ugly one took a box out of his sheepskin vest pocket and opened it. It was full of bullets-not real bullets-but twists of paper full of black powder with these odd-looking foam tops he called Wonder Wads. He said he'd made them himself. They didn't even look like real bullets, so I don't think he brought the wrong ones by mistake. He and the cute one loaded all fifteen guns. When they were through, the hairy guy had each of us initial the box top as proof that we witnessed him load the guns. That was it.”
“Did anything else happen?”
Lizzie crinkled her brow in thought, then shook her head. “We all stepped into the hall. Janet pulled the door shut, locked it, and put the key ring in her pocket. She said she needed to go up to the office for a few minutes. I don't like hanging around the building after dark-because of the ghosts-so when she said she didn't need me to stay, I left with the ree-nactors.”
The “ghost” reference stopped my thought process in midstream. “What ghosts?”
“It's silly, I know, but stories have been going round for years that the campus is haunted. Some of the buildings were used during the Civil War as a hospital, and so many men died here that they had to be buried on campus.”
“Is that why you thought I was a ghost when you saw me in the basement?”
She nodded and looked a little embarrassed. “The Sisters of Charity set up an operating room in the basement. Students say the ghost of a nun in a blue habit appears there sometimes. She's supposed to have died here.”
Skepticism must have showed on my face. “I know,” she said. “It's probably just stories the guys make up to give the girls a good scare.”
“Guys? I thought this was a women's college.”
“At this point in time, they'd accept anybody who was breathing.” She laughed. “Actually, Tori, men have been on campus since World War II.”
I tried to bring the conversation back around to the former congressman's death. “Who else had access to the room? Custodians? Students? Faculty?”
“There were only two keys, and Janet always kept them with her. I didn't even have one.”
“And she opened the door on Saturday so the soldiers could get their guns out?”
“What about after she unlocked it on Saturday morning? Could someone have gotten in then and reloaded the guns?”
“She didn't unlock the door until Mack got there. Then Woody passed the guns out to the men while we watched. There was no possible way for anyone to have tampered with them.”
“And she had both the storeroom keys with her all night? This doesn't look good for Janet, does it? Suppose I start by going through your file? See if I can't pull out the names of some people to talk to.”
She led me into her office in the other half of the garret. It was slightly larger than Janet's domain, with a lot more actual work equipment, including a cluttered desk, a large drafting table, a light box, and lots of things with flashing lights I didn't even recognize. In contrast to the cyber-age electronic equipment were the old-fashioned slate blackboards covering the walls from the waist-high chair rail to the ceiling. On each was a chart outlining the progress of the different projects the PR department was working on.
“Impressive,” I remarked, pointing to the boards.
“The only way I can keep up with what we're doing and make the deadlines is to put up a time line for each project. I tried to do it on the computer, but this seems to work better for me.” She walked over to one of the boards and proudly explained, “This is the time line for the view book.”
“What's a ‘view book’?” I asked.
“Propaganda we send out to prospective students, telling them how wonderful our campus is and what a charming place Lickin Creek is to live in. Hopefully, it will encourage them to visit, and when they come we will try to persuade them to choose our small, very expensive, nearly-out-of-business women's college over one of the Seven Sisters.”
“Sounds like quite a challenge.”
“To say the least.”
I noticed a date had been checked off, indicating the faculty had been reminded to send information. The dated column where receipt of the information was noted was nearly empty, even though the date had passed.
Lizzie shrugged. “It's hard to get them moving on anything. They don't realize the amount of lead time it takes to put something like this together. They seem to think spring is too far away to worry about. Let me get you the reenactment folder.”
This should be pretty much like following leads for a news story, I thought. Lizzie placed a thick file folder on the desk. I thumbed through it. “You're very thorough,” I said.
“I keep everything,” she said. “Janet and I call it the COA approach to public relations and marketing- that's short for Cover Our Ass, in case you couldn't guess-we even save the doodles we make while talking on the telephone.” She handed me a notebook and a pen. “You know what you're looking for, I guess. You can use Janet's desk if you like. I'll get to work on the ads for the night classes. Holler if you have any questions.”
I carried the file into the outer office and went through the papers, one by one, making a notation in my notebook whenever I came across the name of someone I might want to interview. Naturally, the men who'd loaded the guns were first on my list.