Carl Martell was frightened.
He locked his office door, creaked down the hallway, down the steps and out through the lobby of the Old Main building. The student essays on his desk would wait. Most of them would have to be scored on VQ's anyway, and grading them under the present conditions seemed a little unsporting. Not to mention futile.
He wondered if he should grow a beard.
It was almost 6:00 p.m. The committee had told him to come back by six and they'd probably have a decision for him.
It was October, cool and clear, with a fresh breeze. Martell stopped a moment to see if Cerafsky's Comet was visible yet, but it was too early. He'd taken a personal interest in the latest comet, feeling somehow that it had a message for him, like the Star of Bethelehem. He wouldn't have admitted this to anyone of course. Unless they'd asked him.
Martell headed down the sidewalk, dark under the shade of tall firs despite the moonlight and street lamps. He decided to take an alley shortcut to the Campus Center and turned between the library and a storage building.
He'd gotten about fifty feet when sudden footsteps pounded up behind him.
Martell looked over his shoulder and ran from bulky shadows, his chest tight, his mouth open.
Hands clutched him from behind. An arm went around his neck. Another pinned his right wrist. He smelled sweat and aftershave.
"Don't make any noise," said a big young man, only a shape in the dark, who came around in front of him, holding up a hunting knife which caught a gleam of moonlight. "I'm a friend of Julie Anderson's. I want to have a little talk with you in private."
"I didn't do anything," Martell said, between gasps. His voice sounded thin to him, almost squeaky. He'd always wondered how he'd react to violence. It was as bad as he'd feared.
"That's what you keep saying, Carl-baby. But you know you're lying and we know you're lying."
"I'm not lying."
"I'm gonna get the truth out of you, Carl-baby. Maybe those fat-butts on the committee can't get it out of you, but I will. Give me the hand, Billy."
The man holding Martell stretched out the arm that gripped his wrist, proferring Martell's hand as if for inspection. He was strong as a back-hoe.
The young man placed the knife edge against Martell's palm. "Now you're gonna tell the truth or I'm gonna cut you. You forced Julie to sleep with you, didn't you? You promised her you'd pass her in History if she put out, right?"
The knife edge was a slice of supercooled interstellar vacuum against Martell's flesh. He floundered in his mind for words, but the only one he found was, "No."
The shock of the slash took his breath. He mouthed, "Oh, God," and the young man struck him twice across the face with an open hand, so that stars flashed under his eyelids.
Then the blade was against his cheek, and he could feel the warm blood. "I don't want to kill you, Carl-baby," the young man said, "but I'm gonna get the truth from you."
"It is the truth, I swear!"
"You're asking for this! Don't make me cut your face!"
"I never I never touched the girl."
"Then lie! Just give me the satisfaction! I need to hear you say it!"
"Nothing happened." Martell clenched his eyes shut.
CRACK! Something burst above them, exploding in bright light and shouts. The knife blade was gone, and the hands that held him were gone, and Martell toppled to the sidewalk, striking his head. He was out for a moment, and when he came to he pushed himself up to a sitting position and found that the two young men were now lying on either side of him. He feared for a moment they were dead, then heard them breathing. Something like a movement at the edge of his vision made him turn his head, which got him woozy again, but when his vision cleared he thought he saw, running away towards the street, a man in a long, dark coat and wide hat, carrying some kind of stick.
A sharp pain in his hand reminded him of his wound, and he fished a handkerchief out of his trousers with his left hand to wrap around it. Only then he remembered what they'd wanted of him....
"I couldn't lie," he murmured. "I couldn't lie to save my life."
He went on his knees in the grass and vomited. Then he lost consciousness again.
* * *
If I grew a beard, Martell thought, maybe things would be all right. He'd always thought he would one day, but his came out red, and it contrasted so with his white-blond hair and pale skin that he knew people would stare. Besides, if you grew a beard people wondered if you were covering a weak chin. Martell was rather proud of his chin.
He could hear Elaine, teasing him, saying, "You know, people wonder if you're an albino. Or a half-albino, if there is such a thing. The skin around your eyes is as white as paper." And he had answered, "My beard grows red."
Flashing red and blue lights. Voices. Muffled, distant. "I ran for a pay phone and called 911 as soon as I found him."
"Did you move him?"
"Didn't touch him."
"Well, let's get him on the cart. That collar secure...?"
"Of course we have every confidence in you, Carl," the Dean of Instruction had said to him. "You can count on a completely objective and open-minded hearing."
Martell would have recognized that speech as the Kiss of Death even if he hadn't sensed she was lying. He felt the lie as a kind of double vision of the mind, a vertigo. It made his stomach queasy.
The Dean had said, "You know we're on your side, don't you, Carl?"
And Martell had stood there and looked at her, white-faced, unable to make the politic response.
Someone was shining a bright light in his eye. A voice said, "No sign of concussion, but let's run a couple tests...."
"How long have you been teaching here at Christiania, Carl?" the Dean of Women had asked.
"About eight years."
"And you've been happy here?"
"You came here from the University, didn't you?"
"Why did you leave there?"
He had said, "Because I was afraid of a man," and everyone had looked away or cleared their throats, embarrassed by the naked candor. A mistake. One he couldn't avoid.
Maybe he should grow a mustache. No. He wasn't the mustache type. Either a full beard or nothing.
"You've never married, have you, Carl?" the Dean of Men had asked.
"And you don't live with anyone?"
"How often do you date?"
"I never date."
"You have a number of attractive young women in your classes, don't you, Carl?"
"Isn't it true that you had a live-in relationship with one of your students at the University, a woman considerably younger than yourself?"
"I've talked it over with Sally," Roy Corson of the English Department had said, sitting on a corner of the desk in Martell's office, plump and bulky in his uniform tweed jacket with elbow patches, stroking his little beard and looking serious. "She says she'll play along. All you've got to do is say you spent that evening at our place. We'll say we played Trivial Pursuit or Strip Poker or something."
"I don't think I can do that," he had answered.
"Come on, Carl you didn't do the deed, did you?"
"Of course not."
"Don't you see? I might have. Anybody else on the faculty might have those who could and those who swing that way. You're the only man I know I'd trust with my virgin sister, if there is such a thing anymore. That's why we've got to get you off. It's the grossest possible miscarriage another show trial for the Sexual Harassment gestapo. Sometimes you've got to give justice a little nudge."
"I'm sorry, but there are reasons. I just can't."
"OK, have it your way. But Jesus isn't gonna come down on his Harley and pull your butt out of this."
"I don't believe in Jesus."
Maybe he should grow a half-beard like Roy's. No. Tall, thin men with half-beards look like Don Quixote.
"You make enemies, Carl," Elaine had said once, over breakfast. "You think it's your responsibility to right all the wrong in the world and correct everybody's mistakes, as if humankind was your History 101 class. People aren't bad just because they're wrong. And they're not always wrong."
"Carl, is it true that on the 18th of September last, you interrupted a student's report in class by shouting, 'Lies, lies, lies!' threw a chalk eraser at him, and ran to the Men's Room?"
"Why did you do that?"
"I didn't want to be sick in the classroom."
* * *
"WEEP News, Sid Edelman reporting for Huset Motors. Unless you've been in labor for thirty-six hours, you've probably heard that Epsom is expecting a celebrity. Sigfod Oski, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, announced on arrival at Twin Cities International Airport this morning that, instead of making his expected visit to the University of Minnesota, he has decided to come immediately to Epsom where, he said, he will make his first public statements at a meeting scheduled for Thursday. President Saemund Lygre of Christiania College told WEEP News:"
"Yes, we have known about Mr. Oski's plans for a couple days now. But he made it very clear that he didn't want any announcements made before his arrival, and of course we were eager to cooperate with him in every way."
"We were able to contact a spokesperson for the University, who asked to remain anonymous, for the administration's reaction. All he was able to say was that they weren't very happy about it.
"Turning to national news, the Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge by the One Nation Under God Foundation to the Definition of Religion Act. A spokesman for ONUG described the new law as 'a frontal assault on the First Amendment,' while a spokesman for the Justice Department stated that 'We're trying to get the American people to understand that not only is DRA not a threat to freedom of religion, it's the greatest boon this country has ever seen to true religious conviction.'
"And now a word from Huset Motors. Tired of the high prices and runaround you get from those big city dealers? Ted Huset says "
The Reverend Harold Gunderson of Nidaros Lutheran Church, a heavy, red-faced man with tangled, thinning hair and a gift for getting the wrong button into any buttonhole, pulled his Oldsmobile into the parking lot of the Epsom Area Medical Center and flipped the radio off. He was excited by the news about Sigfod Oski, and slightly disturbed by the entire DRA business (although the bishop had assured them at the last convention that there was nothing to worry about) but he had work to do. He turned the key off and opened the door to get out, dragging his prosthetic right leg.
The lighted brick front of the building illuminated graffiti that shouted (all graffiti is a shout), "MICROBE MURDERERS SPESIESISM SUCKS!"and "NO MOR BREEDERS!" But, like everyone else, Harry hardly noticed graffiti anymore.
He never limped into the cramped, 80's style lobby of the Medical Center without a twinge of remembrance. He'd left a limb here, and something infinitely more precious.
"It's my cross," he said silently. "Help me to bear it for You. By Your grace we'll make good of this."
He was surprised to find Carl Martell at the front desk, his overcoat over his arm, a gauze bandage on his forehead, signing out awkwardly with a bandaged hand.
"Six stitches in it," Martell told him when he'd finished his story. "About my head they're not sure yet, but then what else is new? They'll want me to come back for more tests."
"It's appalling," said the pastor. "You've talked to the police, of course?"
"Sure they deserve a laugh like anybody else. Whoever attacked me was gone by the time they got there. 'Did you recognize either of your attackers?' 'No.' 'Were their voices familiar?' 'No.' 'Is it possible that they were your students?' 'I suppose so.' 'Anything else you remember?' 'Well, there was this mysterious rescuer with a stick...' They liked that part a lot. Am I an absent-minded professor, Harry? I didn't think I was bright enough."
"They hear stranger stories every day. Believe me I hear some of them too."
"That's right, you're like Father Brown. The underworld has no secrets from you."
Harry's face went grave. "Any word from the disciplinary committee?"
Martell gasped. "My God. I forgot all about it. I was on my way to find out when all this happened. Where's a phone? I've got to call the Dean."
Harry followed him to a pay phone and picked his pocket for him when he couldn't get at his wallet for his credit card. Martell pushed the buttons slowly, reciting each digit as he did. "You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little vague, Harry. They gave me some kind of pain-killer and I feel like I've been flogged with shaving cream."
He reached the Dean at home and made his explanation. Harry could hear a voice from the receiver, and then Martell said thank you and hung up, his face whiter than usual.
"Well?" Harry asked.
"It's been dropped. Julie withdrew the accusation."
Martell shook his head, then winced. "It's over. All the fear. All the sleepless nights. Over. Just like that. And I still don't know why. I don't know why it started, and I don't know why it stopped. I've never felt so powerless in my life."
"I was sure you'd be vindicated, Carl. And now I think what you need most is a good night's sleep. Go home and go to bed. Then you'll be fresh and rested for the reception tomorrow."
"For Sigfod Oski. I assume you've got a ticket, as a faculty member."
"Of course. I got a pair of them this morning, but I hadn't thought much about them with all that's been going on. Which just shows you how far out of things I've been I mean, Oski after all. I've dreamed of meeting him for years."
"Do you know who you're taking with you?" Harry was fishing, but he often had to, with Carl.
"Taking with me? Oh, the second ticket. No, I hadn't thought about it..." He turned to walk away, then turned back. "You want to come to the reception?"
Harry beamed. He'd caught his fish. "Why thank you, Carl, how thoughtful. I'd be delighted."
"I'll pick you up at 6:00 then."
"Splendid. Will I see you at church Sunday?"
"When my time comes you'll be the first to know." Martell struggled with his overcoat, and Harry helped him get it on and watched him drift towards the doors. The pastor watched him go. A fine looking, tall man, he thought, but strangled inside by some private worm.
He went to the desk and asked for the printout of Lutheran patients. As usual it was a long one, but only about half of them were his responsibility. The Lutherans of Epsom, in the proud Norwegian-American tradition, believed there was no such thing as too many, or too small, Lutheran churches. But like the Good Shepherd Harry Gunderson knew his own. He noted the Nidaros church members.
He called on a new mother, an old woman dying of cancer, a farmer with a broken hip and three STD's.
On his way out he found Livingston Berge, the church custodian, signing out just where Carl Martell had been, and having the same trouble.
"How in thunder's a fella supposed to sign out with a bandage like this?" he was demanding of the nurse. "These kid doctors don't know nothin' about finishing a job!"
"Stoney!" the pastor said. "What happened to you?"
"I was attacked by a vicious beast," said Stoney in the voice of a soul purified by suffering.
"He was bitten by a mouse," said the desk nurse.
Stoney gave her a "he jests at scars" look, which she ignored. He was a round-headed, stoop-shouldered man in his sixties. He spoke in an immigrant's brogue although he had never been in Norway in his life he was the last of a breed.
Harry tried to look concerned.
"You know those new humane mouse traps the government made us buy?" Stoney said. "Well I had a plastic bucket with a lid I was keepin' the little buggers in, so I could take 'em out and release 'em in the country all at once "
"That's against the law, you know," said the desk nurse, who didn't seem to have a lot of work to do at the moment. "You could be charged for cruelty under the Animal Rights Act. You're supposed to release them within six hours."
"I don't recall sayin' how many I had or how long I'd had 'em. For your information our church is infested with mice, like every other place in America, includin' this hospital." The nurse looked sulky and turned away.
Stoney held his hand up. "Mouse bite is just like rat bite, they say. And everybody knows rat bite is as bad as rattlesnake. They wanted to keep me overnight for observation, especially after all these plague scares, but I wouldn't stay. Got too much work to do. I could be dead tomorrow though. You could be preachin' my funeral Saturday."
"I suppose my text could be, 'I fought wild beasts at Ephesus.'"
Stoney looked as if he was thinking that one over. They moved towards the brown, ovoid vinyl chairs in the waiting area.
"I saw a bandage just like yours on another friend of mine right in this lobby, about an hour ago," Harry said. "Carl Martell from the college."
Stoney snorted. "I don't see why you hang around with that perfessor. All them college teachers is atheists and acrostics."
"Carl's not exactly an atheist."
"I remember a day when they hired Christians to teach at church schools. But nothin's been the same since they shot all that hardware up on the moon."
"Nothing ever stays the same, Stoney."
"Ain't that the truth? You know what the problem is? I think I worked it out yesterday afternoon while I was rakin' the leaves.
"Meat. We don't eat enough meat anymore. All those animal rights nuts got us eatin' salads and beans and silage, and it's messed up our heads. They won't admit it, but there's a vitamin in meat helps you think straight. Never was a vegetarian in the history of the world could use his brain.
"No, you think about it. You know what Hitler was? He was a vegetarian. I seen it on TV. He didn't die in the war, you know. He lived on for years in Argentina, or Venezuela, or one of them places. My friend Ellsworth swears he saw him when he was on a package tour to Rio D. Whatever. It was Hitler started all that vegetarian propaganda, you know. It was revenge was what it was, for us beatin' him in the war."
Harry narrowed his eyes and looked at him closely. "But Stoney," he whispered, "how do you know it hasn't affected you? Maybe it's not the vegetables at all. Maybe it's - pizza!" Stoney squinted at him. "Yes! Pizza from Mussolini's Italy! Whoever ate pizza in America before World War II?"
Stoney pulled himself up straight in his chair. "Now you're laughin' at me," he said.
Harry shook his head. "I'm sorry, Stoney. Maybe it's the vegetables after all."
"An' green fire plugs! Ain't nothin' been the same since they started paintin' the fireplugs green."
Later, swinging his unmatched legs into his Olds, awkwardly lifting the plastic one over the center console so he could control the gas and brake with the left, Harry felt the wave of panic he sometimes still experienced in an automobile. It took all his control to put the key in the ignition.
If I had started out ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later that night.
If I had driven slower. Or faster.
If the truck driver hadn't been eighteen hours without sleep, propped up with pills. If I had let Joanna drive, then I would have been the one thrown through the window and under the wheels. She could have managed without me a lot better than I can without her.
And underneath, the nagging fear that, if really given the choice, he might have grabbed for his own life.
Useless thoughts. He pushed them down. "It's my cross. Help me to bear it for You. By Your grace we'll make good of this." And he said a prayer for the driver of the truck, four years in a wheelchair.
Driving home he turned on the radio and listened to Rory Buchan.The Year of the Warrior--Order ebook from Baen