Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Chapters 72 & 73

Chapter 72
   This time my first thought when I regained consciousness was that I was cozily tucked under my warm quilts at home, and I smiled, eyes still shut. But something was wrong ... this wasn’t my bedroom ... the smell wasn’t right. I smelled flowers and ... and  antiseptic.
     I slowly opened my eyes to a roomful of bouquets and worried faces. And Colin. I reached my hand toward him and he was immediately by my side, brow furrowed, green eyes ringed from exhaustion, stroking my cheek.
   “Maggie, Love, how do you feel? You’re in University Medical Center. Doctor says you have a concussion, but once you woke up, you’d be just fine ... and now you’re awake!” he said, eyes wide with obvious relief. 
   “Hi, honey,” Sharon was now holding my other hand and smiling at me. 
   “What happened?” I whispered, voice hoarse and more fatigued than I realized. 
   “We found you in the bell tower, unconscious,” Colin said. “Boyle...”
      I shut my eyes again as I remembered Bennett Boyle, covered in blood. “Oh, God, Colin. He’s dead! They killed him and hit me and locked us in the tower. Oh, God, Colin.”
    “I know, Love. We found him. Don’t cry, Love. Who, Maggie? Who did this?”
      “I don’t know ... I don’t know. I didn’t see anyone ... only Boyle ... and then I had to ring the bell. I was so cold ... You heard the bell?”
      “Yes, we did, Love. Good thinking or we might not have found you for a while.”  
     Sharon let go of my hand and moved to allow a nurse to take my vitals. I looked up questioningly through tears at the familiar face. The nurse smiled and said, “Yes, I’m Steven’s better half. He told me to take good care of you, and that’s just what we’re doing. Be still for me, now.”
   Suddenly Ben’s head popped up behind the nurse’s, cell phone to his ear.
   “Hi, Mom, I brought the nurse!” he said, looking at me with love, concern and relief. Then holding the phone up a second, he said, “Calling Michael. He insisted I call him the minute you woke up.”  Then into the phone he said, “She’s awake. Nurse is checking her now, but she’s talking and ... what? No, she looks good considering she’s got a bandaged head ...”   
      I reached up to find a wide bandage wrapped around my head. Underneath, it hurt. 
     “She also looks very unlike our fashionable mother in this incredibly ugly Medical Center gown that’s just not her color. Yeah. I will. I gotta go call Amanda. Later, Bro.” Then to me, “Michael sends his love. He wanted to come, but Portland’s airport is snowed in. I told him he could pray just as well from there and to stay by the phone. Karen sends her love, too. One of these huge flower bunches is from them. I don’t remember which one. I gotta call Amanda. She and the girls are beside themselves with worry.”
      Nurse Jackson turned to Ben with her version of “the look,” thinking there was entirely too much talking and she didn’t like cell phones in her patients’ rooms. Patients needed rest. Ben got the message and said, “I’ll just call her out in the hallway, Mom. Be right back!” 
      The nurse smiled and continued taking vitals. “Looks pretty good, considering, Mrs. Grant. You’ve got 15 stitches in your head, but you’re doing fine. The doctor will be along on rounds in another hour, but I think you’ll be staying with us at least another night.”
     “Another night?” I whispered. “What day is it?What time is it?”
   “It’s early Sunday afternoon, Love.” Colin said. “You’ve been sleeping for quite some time. Doctor said it was normal, though, from the blow to your head and the cold. Don’t worry. Do you feel up to talking to Chief Callahan? He wanted to see you as soon as possible.”
     “I don’t know much, but I can talk to him. Is that all right, Nurse Jackson?” 
      Nurse Jackson said yes, but told Colin not to let me get too tired. Too late, I thought. I was already exhausted. “I’ll order a dinner tray to be brought up,” she said before leaving. I realized how hungry I was and hoped it wasn’t just broth and Jell-O.
      The door opened again and Carol came in, rushing to my side, saying, “Ben said you were awake. I went to get coffee. Oh, Maggie, you had us all so scared!”
      “Carol! What are you doing here!?”
   “When Sharon called Friday night, I wanted to come right then, but I waited a day for further reports. When the doctors said you’d be fine but needed lots of rest, I just packed everything up and came two weeks earlier than planned for the wedding! I’m now your new roommate and am at your service to get everything done at home in time for you to walk beautifully down the aisle with this handsome man of yours!”
      “Oh, Carol,” was all I could say through more tears — but tears of gratitude. 
 Chapter 73  
      Chief Callahan arrived shortly after the doctor’s rounds and the broth, Jell-O and weak tea. I gulped it all down hungrily as I tried to recreate the night. And I asked a lot of questions as well. Once again, I was both interviewee and interviewer. 
      Colin had arrived as scheduled Friday night and was puzzled to see my office light out. Thinking I must have seen him driving up and was on my way down, he waited. When I didn’t appear within ten minutes, he called my cell. No answer. He got out, but found the building locked tight. 
      Thinking maybe I’d forgotten our date and walked home, he drove my normal route, but my house was dark, my Volvo parked in the driveway, and there was no sign of me on the streets. He called Sharon, who hadn’t seen or heard from me all day. 
      Going back to campus, he checked the library, the SUB and all places in between. Knowing this just wasn’t like me, he finally called campus security. An officer met him back at the Administration Building, and they went inside, but found my office the same as all others in the building, dark, quiet and locked. He called my cell again and again, but no answer. 
      Completely baffled, he called Sean, who checked the church and the small chapel, which also turned up empty. 
      By now, Sharon was worried as well, and she and Doug donned heavy coats and joined Colin at the Double T bench in the courtyard with the campus police officer. Sean arrived soon after.   
      Sharon asked if they had gone into my office? They hadn’t, so the officer and Colin headed that way to look for a possible appointment book entry. Sharon and Sean went to wait at my house and call the local hospitals while Doug went back to the Nest in case I called its landline.  
      Opening my office, Colin and the officer found nothing on my calendar but were alarmed to see my briefcase sitting next to the desk, keys and wallet inside. My cell phone, sitting on top of the desk, had been turned off. 
      They quickly walked the halls of the building again, all three floors, and found nothing and no one. All offices were locked and all lights were off. The officer called in for assistance, but still nothing after another hour or so of searching and waiting. It was as if I’d just vanished.  
      Colin confirmed the only car in the parking lot was not mine. Where else should they look?
      By midnight, Colin was frantic and called Chief Callahan at home — he’d given Colin his private number after the January fire. Then Colin called Elaine, who hadn’t seen her boss since her own departure at five. Elaine told him I had been wearing a dark wool suit that day. Colin promised to call Elaine again as soon as they found me.
      An obviously concerned Callahan joined them in the courtyard about twenty minutes later, directing two of his men to retrace my usual route through campus and to look in all the bushes and dark doorways. He called the Lubbock Police for assistance in searching around my home and nearby park. Then he checked on the one parked car, finding it belonged to the chief of staff. Boyle didn’t answer his cell either, and a second check of his dark office turned up nothing unusual. Had I actually been the target all along? Was Boyle the arsonist?
      They were baffled. Both Maggie and Bennett Boyle missing? Callahan sent an officer to Boyle’s condo to check on him, but Colin could not, would not believe we were somewhere together — at least not willingly. He knew I still avoided the man like the plague. 
      Deciding it was too cold to stay outside much longer, Chief Callahan moved them inside to the president’s suite on the first floor to continue coordination of the search. President Parker was notified and asked to be kept updated. 
      “We don’t have surveillance cameras on this building,” Callahan said. “It’s in next year’s budget. But we can pull the footage from the few we do have on surrounding buildings to see if she, or Boyle, might have crossed their line of sight. Normally, though, most of the cameras are focused on entrances, not on the grounds. We can get them in the morn ...” He stopped and turned his head slightly. “Listen,” he whispered. 
      A bell rang, and then rang again and again. 
      “The tower! Someone’s in the tower!” Colin shouted as he rushed out the heavy oak doors heading for the east stairs, closely followed by two young officers and Chief Callahan. By the time they reached the third floor landing, Colin was frantic trying to imagine why in the world I might be in the bell tower. Finding the door locked, he pounded on it and called my name, cursing Boyle for taking his key. He stepped aside anxiously as one of the officers pulled out a master key and slowly opened the door, peering inside the darkness with his flashlight.
   “Go!” Callahan said to his officers. “Professor, they go first.” Colin stayed back, but not by choice.  He and the chief followed behind the officers who had their weapons drawn and were proceeding cautiously but quickly up the stairs, flashlights leading the way. The bell had stopped ringing. Colin thought he was much too far behind, and he wished desperately for his gun.
      “There’s a body up here!” one of the officers shouted down.     
           Colin blanched, leaning against the wall. “No, God, no. Maggie ...,” he prayed aloud.
      Then he heard, “Get an ambulance. One of ’em’s alive!” Chief Callahan called it in as Colin raced up the remaining stairs, two at a time. The young officers had found Boyle. Then seeing a woman’s shoe next to him, and feeling the cold night air coming in, shined their flashlights up toward the ceiling. My bare feet hung out over the opening of the trap door, and one of the officers scrambled up to me. Finding a pulse and no injuries except the bump on my head, he slung me over his shoulder, fireman-rescue style, and carried me down to the platform.    
      Colin was up there in a flash, helping the officers get me down, then cradling me in his arms as he sat on the frigid tiled Double T. He said I was so cold! He took off his jacket and wrapped it around me. The two officers put their coats over me, too, and all three rubbed my hands and feet, trying to get my circulation moving. When the paramedics arrived, they took over, assessing my head wound and starting an IV. 
      Colin had been standing at the edge of the platform watching the medical team work when Chief Callahan asked him to take a look at the body. Reluctantly taking his eyes off a still unconscious me, Colin obliged, just then realizing the dead man was Boyle. He hadn’t noticed or cared as he had stepped over him to get to me.
   Shifting his mind to investigative mode, he assessed the scene, noting the placement of the body, the strewn papers, the amount of blood. Boyle had been stabbed in the chest, but no weapon had been found as yet. 
      After giving his professional opinions, Colin left it to Callahan’s CSI team, riding with me in the ambulance to UMC. He was joined at the hospital by Doug, Sharon and Father Sean, who was immensely relieved he wouldn’t need to perform Last Rites for his future sister-in-law. I was alive, and although unconscious, the doctors thought it was exposure that was my immediate, but not life-threatening problem.
      Sharon then called Ben and Michael and Carol. Ben arrived on the first flight from Dallas, calling in hourly reports to Michael who couldn’t get out of Portland. Carol had arrived early Sunday, moving into my guest bedroom and taking care of Miss Priss and everything else that needed to be taken care of. 
   I am a lucky woman, with such incredible friends and family. More next week.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chapters 69, 70 and 71

Working late in his studio several days later, Colin was surprised when Jamie walked in. Putting down his tools, Colin thought it was a good time for a break.
   “Hey, Murphy,” Jamie said, somewhat hesitantly. Colin thought he looked a little nervous. 
      “Hey,” he replied, picking up his thermos of coffee. “What brings you to this side of campus?”
“I ... um, I needed to check on the schedule for the Habitat for Humanity project for next week. Wondered if you’d look at it and see if there’s anything we might need to change.”
Colin narrowed his eyes and studied the boy. “I can ... but I’ve never had to look at them before. What’s this really about, Jamie?”
   The young man shifted from one foot to the other, hesitating. 
   “Sit down, son. You’re making me nervous. What is it?” Colin hoped it was about the boy’s obvious continued depression so he could offer some help. He had been increasingly worried about Jamie.
“I ... I just wanted to ask you something personal, that’s all.”
“Personal? Go ahead, ask,” Colin said, immediately thinking about Maggie. Maybe he wants to ask me about marriage? With only his mother raising him, maybe he wants a man’s perspective on marriage?
   “I was wondering what you thought about becoming a priest?”
   “A priest?” Colin sputtered.  “Um, my future wife probably wouldn’t be too keen on the idea. And I think I’m a little too old for the priesthood.”
Jamie blushed.“No, I meant me. The priesthood for me.”
Colin was stunned and hoped his face didn’t show it as Jamie appeared quite serious. “Well, son, that’s an interesting question,” he said, recovering. “I’ve always admired the men who give their lives to the church, especially my brother. It’s a difficult decision and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Um, shouldn’t you be talking to Father Sean about this? He’s much more knowledgeable on the subject than I am.”
“I know, but I wanted to know what you thought first. Do you think I’d make a good priest, I mean. Am I good enough like your brother to be a priest?” His face was contorted in pain.
   “I don’t think it’s a matter of being good enough, Jamie.”
   “What if you’ve made some mistakes? Some big mistakes. Can they be forgiven enough for you ... I mean for me ... to join the priesthood?”
  “Jamie, everybody makes mistakes. Even big ones. And yes, I believe we can be forgiven for any mistakes we make, we just have to ask. Heaven knows my brother was no saint when he was ordained. All humans make mistakes, and sometimes big ones. No, I don’t think it’s a matter of being good enough, because if that were a prerequisite, I doubt there’d be any priests at all.
   “I think Father Sean would tell you it has to do with hearing a definite call from God to serve. You really need to talk with him about it.”
   Jamie looked unhappy with that answer and stood up to leave. Colin rose, too, walking with him to the workshop door, thinking he needed to give him something more.
   “Why don’t you go talk with him tomorrow? I know he’ll make himself available for you.”
   “Thanks, Murphy, I will.”
   “And Jamie,” Colin said as the Saddle Tramp walked away. “I think you’d make a hell of a priest.”

Chapter 70
The early morning sunshine promised a clear, unusually warm February day, so I walked to work last Friday morning. I knew another cold front was due in later tonight but for now, I enjoyed the warmth. I’m getting married few weeks from tomorrow, I thought happily as I made my way across campus. What a miracle. How blessed I felt to find love twice in one lifetime. I was positively giddy with happiness and I’m sure the spring in my step reflected that joy.
   Late in the afternoon, I was deep in a project for the athletic department, and realizing it was going to take me longer than I’d anticipated, I phoned Colin to tell him I would be working late — I wanted the weekend free for wedding planning. 
   He was doing the same, he said — working late, that is, not wedding planning; he knew enough to leave all of that to the bride and friends — and offered to pick me up about eight for a late dinner. “Best proposal I’ve had all day,” I said brightly. “See you then. I’ll look for you out front by the circle and come right down.”
   Around 7:00 p.m., I was surprised to get a call from Bennett Boyle’s office phone. When I answered, he said in his usual flat tone, “You’re still in the office. Can you come down here? I need to ask you about parts of Parker’s Washington speech. I told him it would be ready first thing Monday morning.”
   President Parker was scheduled to be in D.C. on Tuesday at a congressional hearing on higher educational needs, and I had spent considerable time last week researching and composing his testimony. What in the world did Boyle want to change now, I thought. Before I had a chance to answer, he said a word I thought was foreign to him.
“Please? It shouldn’t take long.” 
   Recovering after a moment, I said, “Of course, if you can give me about 15, 20 minutes to wrap up what I’m doing here. Is that all right? I can be down then.” 
  “Fifteen minutes is fine,” he said and then uttered another foreign word, “Thanks.”
  I was astounded. Since the department had been moved under the president late last semester, I rarely even saw Boyle, except in administrative staff meetings, and he didn’t talk much during those meetings except to contradict me now and then. For him to ask for my help... and to utter the two magic words? Unbelievable ... well, maybe not ... I had been praying for him, at least once in a while. Who knows? God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t He?
   I finished up the section I was editing for athletics, and nineteen minutes later headed to Boyle’s office with a final copy of the President’s speech in hand, deciding to take the third floor hallway to the east stairs and head down that way. Normally I took the path of down first, then over to the east wing through the outside arcade and fresh air. I wasn’t sure of the weather, though — had the cold front arrived? — and sometimes the outside door was locked at night. 
   Rounding the corner to the east stairs landing, I noticed the small door to the bell tower was slightly open at the top of the small stairs. I winced at the absence of the red and black inside, my first glimpse since the fire. The walls were now institutional beige. What a shame that the Tramps were thrown out, I thought once again. Boyle was such a prick, even if he has learned to use the magic words. Colin was working on reversing the order and thought the Saddle Tramps might be given permission to reclaim their “clubhouse” by summer.
   I refocused. Who in the world would be up there in the tower at this hour? And why? I knew of no athletic games tonight. I walked up the stairs toward the open door, thinking maybe someone had accidently left it open.
  Suddenly I heard a man’s voice call out, “No!” then a deep scream that ended as something or someone fell. It sounded like Bennett Boyle’s voice, and I took two steps up inside the door, calling up the stairwell, “Hello? Who’s there? Mr. Boyle?”
  I heard movement, then silence. It wouldn’t be Boyle, I reasoned, he’s downstairs in his office. “Hello?” I said even louder. I leaned against the outside wall, straining to see upward, but remembered the sightline was limited, not only by the platforms spanning the stairwell spaces, but also by the lack of lighting. Reaching for my phone on my belt, I discovered I’d left it on my desk. 
   I took a few more tentative steps up the bare cement, calling out his name again. I thought I heard a low moan and quickened my pace, climbing higher and higher ... third set, fourth set, fifth set ... all the while calling his name. “Mr. Boyle? Is that you? Are you all right?” I kept my hands tightly on the old wooden railing to make certain of my footing in the dim light. Now I could see the one hanging spotlight at the top was not on. I found the switch at the bottom of the last set of stairs and flipped it, but the light didn’t come on. 
   The only light was a reflective glow coming in the windows, but it was enough for me to make out a dark figure lying on the floor up ahead — he was on his back on the top level, feet hanging over the edge of the last step. His hands were clasped to his chest and he wasn’t moving.
  “Mr. Boyle?” Recognizing him as I moved closer, I cried out, “Bennett!” Kneeling down beside him, I thought perhaps he’d had a heart attack, but up here? I repeated, “Bennett! What’s happened? Did you fall?” His eyelids opened slightly and he turned his head to look at me. 
   “Anna?” he said weakly. He put his hand to my cheek — his hand was wet and sticky. I recoiled, confused by the mercury smell and Boyle’s touch. His hand fell back across his chest where a dark wetness was spreading rapidly across his starched white shirt. Blood! There was blood all over his shirt! I started to get up to go for help, but he grabbed my arm, tightly, and pulled me back down, grimacing in pain.  
   “Did I hurt you, Anna? Oh, my love,” he continued to whisper, still holding my arm, but barely able to talk. “I’m so sorry, please forgive me. We didn’t mean to ... Oh, Mars, I’m so sorry.”    
           His eyes closed and then let go of my arm. Then he said in a shallow voice, “Anna? I love you. I’ve always loved you.” Grabbing his chest with both hands in obvious extreme pain, Bennett Boyle looked directly in my eyes once more and whispered forcefully, “Oh, God, Mars ... God forgive me.” His eyes closed and his head fell to one side.
  “Bennett!” I shouted.  
  I heard a noise behind me, but before I could turn, my world went dark.
Chapter 71
   My first thought as I regained consciousness was that I was cold — my blanket must have fallen off the bed. But I wasn’t at home in bed, I was somewhere else ... somewhere strange ... and I was dressed. I opened my eyes and looked around. What was I doing on the floor in this cold dimly lit room? I tried to sit up, but the back of my head throbbed and I felt as though I were in a fog. 
   Slowly pushing myself up to a sitting position, palms against the cold floor, head bent down, I tried to focus. Strange, I thought, noticing the papers scattered around me, a page or two halfway down the stairs ... stairs ... I remembered I was taking something down the stairs to ...  Oh, God! Boyle! 
           I frantically looked up and then grabbed my head in pain. I almost fainted but steadied myself on the platform post. I took deep breaths and opened my eyes again, looking around behind me. There he was, sitting up against the far wall ... he’d moved!
“Bennett!” I shouted, slowly crawling over to him, oblivious to the continued searing pain in my head. His eyes were closed and the stain on his shirt was immense. I put my fingers on his neck, but his body was so cold I knew I wouldn’t find a pulse. He was dead.
   Sitting back heavily against the wall opposite him, I crossed myself and then reached up instinctively to touch the egg-sized bump on the back of my head. I felt not only the wound, but also the dried blood that had matted my hair and run down the back of my neck. Who had done this? God, who had done this?
    I wondered how long I’d been out — it must’ve been hours judging by the caked blood, the much colder temperature and the lack of any traffic noise from outside. 
   Colin! He was coming for me at eight o’clock! I pushed myself up, almost retching from the pain, black spots dancing before my eyes. Leaning against the wall for a minute or two, I became a little steadier and more focused. I stepped around Boyle’s body and felt my way to the stairs, leaning heavily on the railing, supporting myself with the wall and the old wooden banister as my head screamed in agony.     
  After what seemed like an endless descent, I reached the door at the darkened bottom of the stairwell, discovering it not only was now closed, but locked. And there was no inside latch. Someone had locked me in the tower!
   I banged on the door, calling for help, again and again, but no one came. “Please, God,” I prayed, slumping against the wall exhausted. “Help me.” Then I turned and forced myself to go back up the stairs, pulling my shivering weary body up by the railing, slowly enough to keep the pain from making me faint. It took an eternity. 
Stepping once again around Boyle, willing myself not to look at his face, I went from window to window, trying to pull one open. Recently painted shut, they wouldn’t budge, and the new glass was now reinforced with wire, so breaking one was not an option. Besides, the Saddle Tramp benches had been burned in the fire last December, so I had nothing to use to even try to hit them with. I sat down on the floor on the far side of the platform, away from Boyle, to think.    
   Facts, Maggie. What are the facts? Fact one: the door downstairs is locked from the outside and no one is around to unlock it. Fact two: in the morning, maybe someone would be around and would hear me and unlock it, but who knew how early or even if someone might come on a Saturday? 
   And to sit all night alone in the dark with a dead man was not my idea of how to spend a pleasant night. Besides, I was cold! I wished I’d worn pants today instead of my wool skirt and jacket. At least it was wool, I thought, hugging myself.
    I thought of Colin again. He must be frantic trying to find me. I had to get out.
    Leaning my head back to rest it on the wall behind me, mindful of my painful lump, I noticed the platform above. The platform had been rebuilt ... I thought it was strange they rebuilt the platform if they weren’t going to be ringing the bells. Now that Boyle was dead, maybe ... Focus on now, Maggie. How are you going to get out of here?  
   In addition to the rebuilt platform, a new ladder was bolted to the floor, resting against the platform and continuing up to the bells. I could climb to the platform, pull one of the chains hanging down and ring a bell! Someone would come to see who was ringing the bell in the middle of the night! Hadn’t Jimmy Stewart climbed up a bell tower in that Hitchcock movie? But he climbed a rope ... I’ve got a ladder ... Focus, Maggie, focus.
   Once again I struggled to pull myself up, reaching for the rungs of the metal ladder to steady myself. Surely I could climb four little ladder steps, then I could crawl over to pull the chain.    
   Gathering my strength, I used the cold ladder rungs and the platform’s railing to drag myself to the top and began crawling across the hard frigid tiles. Oh, I thought, they’ve relaid the tiles in a Double T ... mustn’t step on it ... focus, Maggie. Get to the chains. 
   They weren’t there! The killer had either cut the chains or drawn them up on the roof with the bells. No, maybe Boyle had them taken off. If they weren’t going to ring the bells anymore, why would they need chains? The leather gloves were gone, too, most likely burned in the fire. I could’ve used their warmth. I sat down, placing my cold hands under her arms, leaning against the new railing, not brass this time, but a metal mesh. Looking up, I estimated it was another eight or nine rungs up to the trap door. Could I climb up, unlatch it and push it open? 
   I didn’t think I had the strength. 
   Fact three ... or was it fact four? My brain was getting fuzzy. Whatever number, fact was I didn’t know how much blood I’d lost — my blouse was stuck to my back, presumably with dried blood. How serious was my injury? I knew I shouldn’t wait much longer to get medical attention. 
   Fact: If I wanted to get out tonight, I’d have to climb up through the trap door.
   Saying another prayer, I reached again for the ladder and pulled myself to stand. One step at a time, Grant ... just one step at a time. My slick leather-soled shoes slipped on the rungs. My arms ached, my head screamed at every small movement. Hooking not only hands, but elbows around the ladder, I slowly, painfully dragged my unwilling body up and up toward the trap door. 
   After what seemed like another hour, I put my right palm under the trap door to push. I was sweating now from the exertion, numb to the pain in my head, fingers stiff from the cold metal ladder, and I had grown more debilitated with each step. 
   Pushing upward, I slipped again, lost my footing and swung over the edge of the ladder, grabbing frantically at the rungs to stop from falling to the unforgiving tile surface below. Gathering my last reserves, I somehow righted myself. I kicked off my slippery shoes to plant my bare feet firmly, heaved open the trap door and hauled myself up to sit beside the lower bell. 
   Breathing heavily, I took in gulps of the frigid night air. The predicted cold front had definitely arrived. It seared my lungs, but also somewhat revived me as I looked for the chains. Spotting them coiled up on the opposite side of the bell’s ledge, I said weakly, “No way.” 
   There isn’t room for me to crawl around the bell up here, I thought wearily. I’d have to go back down the ladder a few steps and drag myself up the other side to reach the chains — at this point an impossible task in my weakened condition. 
   Despairing, I lay back with my feet hanging out over the open trap door, catching my breath and weighing my new options, if indeed I had any. 
   Feeling cold again, I wrapped my arms around myself and tried to curl up into a ball for warmth. I raised my legs, bending my knees to pull them up, and accidently kicked the bell, bruising my heel. I stopped. I put my legs back down and painfully pushed myself up to a sitting position.   
   I stared at the bell. “Worth a shot,” I whispered weakly. Slowly I lay back down, head spinning. Placing my hands under my thighs, I drew my legs up to my chest, putting the bottoms of my bare feet on the side of the frigid 300-pound bell. I pushed. It moved slightly, but the huge clapper barely stirred.    
   With considerable effort, I scooted back a little and pushed again with my feet. The bell moved more and I pushed over and over until it gave a slight ping, encouraging me. Moving back even further, groaning from the pain and energy expended, my head was now up against the bottom of an open arch. The stone was cold and rough on the back of my already pounding head. I pulled my knees up to my chest again and pushed in steady movement toward the bell. 
            It moved with my feet, again and again, and then went further, swinging back to catch my feet again. I pushed again, moving it even more. Once more. It rang! I pushed again, and it rang again, and again and again. After the sixth successful shove, I fell to my side exhausted while the bell continued ringing loudly with the momentum. 
           “God,” I prayed, “Please let someone hear. I’m so cold ...” 
Once again, my world went dark.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chapters 67 and 68

        The evening after the museum fire, Colin and I dined again with our friends, and although Doug’s cuisine was no less delicious than the evening meal the night before, none of us really tasted it. I had relayed the sad news that Henry Cassidy, the waiter/plumber, had died earlier in the afternoon, leaving a grieving wife and two teenage daughters. He had underlying health problems and his heart couldn’t cope with the severity of the burns and infection. 
   The communications team had put in a hard day updating staff, students, parents, community and interested news stations from around the country. I had to dissuade Winston again from going on camera, so instead Dr. Whitaker busied himself, along with the ever-faithful Miss Katherine, with overseeing the cleanup and getting a new workplace set up. Mrs. Fauntly had sent over an office trailer from one of her company’s construction sites early that morning, complete with phone, fax and computer lines and equipment, telling Winston to spare no expense in getting things back to normal. 
   Had it been a tragic accident? we asked ourselves. Or was it the arsonist again? Colin had suggested we pool our collective creative minds and work through the four fires, trying to find commonalities. He knew the police were already doing that, in fact had been doing that for several months with the first three, but fresh eyes never hurt. And, he reasoned, it gave us all something productive to concentrate on instead of the close call we’d had, especially Sharon. 
   When dinner was finished, he’d asked Sharon if she was okay to talk about it.
   “Yes, of course. I apologize for my behavior last night. It just ... I don’t know what happened.”
   “It’s fine, really, Sharon,” Colin said quickly. “I only wanted to make sure you were up for this, that’s all.”
   “Right, Phelps. No need to apologize,” I added as Doug moved protectively closer to her.
   “I’m fine, now, really,” Sharon said firmly. “So quit fussing, and let’s figure out who this bastard is and stop this insanity.”
   Doug was a man of details. Having talked with Colin earlier in the day, he’d borrowed two large dry erase boards from the music department and set them up on easels in the den. He’d asked Colin when he called if this is how they did it back in his Bureau days. 
“Yep,” was his reply. “You wouldn’t believe how seeing things written down can help the thinking process.”
   Colin started the discussion. “We need to put down everything we can remember about each fire, then look for similarities. Don’t neglect anything, even the smallest thing you can think of or remember might help. First, we’ll list the dates.”
   To the far left, he wrote Library-Mid September. Then Engineering-End of October, Tower- Early December and, finally, Wind Museum-End of January.
   Under each heading, one at a time, we discussed what we knew about the fires. We knew how the first and second had been set but were still waiting for completed information on the tower fire accelerant. And, of course, we knew nothing yet about the one last night, except that again it appeared to be arson because the sprinklers were disabled and delayed, and it had completely destroyed the office area and killed an innocent man.
Doug, the music professor said, “First thing I notice is the meter isn’t even.” To our quizzical looks he said, “The meter – the rhythm. The time between isn’t consistent. Nothing in November, not the same number of weeks in between any of the fires. Longer between the September and October fires than between the October and December fires, and then much longer between the December fire and the one last night.”
   “Good ... and bad,” Colin said. “Good that the arsonist–if it is just one person doing all this–doesn’t seem to be on a schedule. But it also means we can’t predict when the next one might occur. But good catch, Doug.”
  Sharon said, “Also, the times of day are different, aren’t they?”
  “You’re right, they are,” Colin said, writing times under each heading. Early evening, morning, and the last two at night, with about an hour’s difference. 
   “Maggie,” Colin asked. “Do you remember seeing anyone at all four fires? Anyone who stands out? Start with the library. Who did you see?”
   I thought for moment. “Well, there was the student librarian, but he was terrified. I can’t imagine him setting it, and I don’t remember him at any of the other fires. There were lots of students, all going down the stairwell. Any of them could have also been at the next two fires, but no one particularly stood out. Then I talked with the Campus Police. That’s all. Oh, wait, Jamie was outside in the rain. Said he’d come up from the basement, I think. He took charge of the librarian for me. That’s it. They said Bennett Boyle was there talking to reporters, but I hadn’t seen him beforehand and he was gone by the time I was allowed out.”
   Colin listed student librarian, Boyle and Jamie under Library.
   “Okay, how about the next one? At Engineering? Sharon?”
   “Students, of course, and colleagues, but Boyle was in the building, too. Maggie, did you see him there?” Sharon asked. 
   “I did, but I thought he’d come from his office. I didn’t really pay attention to him until he tried to take over. Luckily, Dr. Parker stopped him. I don’t know if Boyle was there before the fire.”
“He was. I saw him about ten minutes earlier in the main office and wondered what had brought him to our hallowed halls,” Sharon said sarcastically. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him there before ... ever.” 
   Colin listed Boyle under Engineering. “Maggie, you certain you didn’t see the librarian at the second fire?”
   “I’m sure I would have remembered him. No, I didn’t see him ... but I did see Jamie, I think. Didn’t you, Sharon?”
“I don’t know for sure. But he’s an engineering major. I see him all the time and he’s in one of my classes this semester. I don’t think that’s significant.”
   “I’ll still list him, although I agree with you,” Colin said. 
   “Right. Jamie’s just one of the few students I actually know by name, that’s all,” I said.
   Under Tower, we couldn’t list anyone, because we saw no one near the fire. And Boyle didn’t come until about an hour later, after most of the crowd had left, saying he was caught in traffic. 
   Doug said, “But he was there afterward, so I think you should put his name down.”
“I agree,” said Colin, writing it on the board. 
   “Well,” I said tentatively, “maybe you should put my name down. I was there for all four of them.”
   Colin looked at me and smiled wryly. “Did you set the fires, Maggie?”
   “Of course I didn’t!” I said indignantly. “But maybe ...”
   “Maybe what?” Colin said. “This is brainstorming, Maggie. Out with it.”
   “Maybe someone is setting them because of me.”
   “Because of you?” Doug said skeptically.
   “No, Doug,” Colin said, thinking about it seriously. “She may be on to something. Who has to be on camera and talk about each fire? Who has to answer phones the next day and put out news releases. And she was actually in the library and the museum when the fires started.  Maybe ...?”
   “But I don’t do those things by myself. I have a staff. Colin, you don’t seriously think one of my staff has been setting the fires, do you?”
   He raised his eyebrows as if it might be a possibility. “I don’t know, Maggie. Would be a good way to get some overtime hours, all right.”
   “They’re all salaried. They get comp time, but no extra money.”
   Sharon speculated, “Maybe one of them thrives on the excitement. Who was at the fires from your staff?” 
   “I had to call them for each fire, except your fire, Sharon. Charlie was at all of them, of course. But he was there to record for the website.”
“You saw Charlie at all the fires?” Doug asked.
  “Yes ... No, not at the library. But I was inside with the fire chief and police. There were some of his photos on the website, but I don’t remember seeing him there.”
   “Okay,” Colin said, “but we know he was there shortly afterwards. Let’s pull up the website archives and see what we’ve got, if we can tell how soon after the alarm he was there.” Doug opened his laptop and began surfing for the photos. “Maybe we can also see some of the same people in the crowds. They do say those who start fires like to watch the chaos they create. I’ll print them and we can tape them up.”
   “Good idea. What about Engineering? Maggie, was Charlie in your office or at the Engineering Building?” Colin asked.
   “My staff was in the office — Elaine, Ricky, Susan and Steven. I’m sure they were. Charlie? He was at the scene, taking photos like he should and feeding them to Ricky. I ... no, wait, he’d been somewhere else on campus, not in the office, because I remember Elaine saying she’d call him ... but then he’s always out of the office. He’s a busy guy.” With a pained expression, I looked at Colin. “It can’t be Charlie.”
“Right now, Love, we’re just writing down everything, remember? Not making accusations. He was also at the Carol of Lights and the Museum, wasn’t he?”
   “Yes, he was,” I said quietly.
   A review of Charlie’s photos showed fire engines arriving at each fire, meaning Charlie had been on the scene almost immediately, if not before. But I refused to believe he was a suspect. Nevertheless, Colin listed him under each heading. And we found no one in the crowds who showed up in all photos. 
   “Okay, who else?” Colin asked the group. He prodded them to think of the next fire in the tower. But still, no one came to mind.
Sharon said, “Well, Jamie was there again, but he was leading the procession.”
“Right,” Colin said. “And I was with him for about three hours before that getting things ready for the ceremony. But, I’ll list him anyway.” He put his name under Charlie’s and Boyle’s.
   “He was also at the museum,” I said quietly. “So was Charlie and so was Boyle. All three were there, Charlie taking photos, Jamie waiting on tables, and Boyle ... well, Boyle left early, before dinner in fact. He and Winston had argued about something. Then he said something to Jamie that made him furious.”
   Sharon said, “Probably about throwing the Saddle Tramps out of the tower. I still can’t believe Boyle did that. What’s the status on reversing that assinine decision, Colin?”
“President Parker has postponed our talking with the Board of Regents until March or April. Said he’s still trying to get more information about the fire. Doesn’t want to make too much of it until we find out who did it, so we’re on hold.”
   “What about how the fires were set?” Doug asked. “What do we know?”
   “Not much,” Colin said. “I’ve talked with Chief Callahan, and he said the first one, in the library, was fairly easy to set. Perp pulled old magazines with ancient paper and set them on fire, closing and then disabling the stacks. Put some metal rods in the tracks to block the movement. Seemed to know air could reach the fire, but the firemen couldn’t, at least not until they pulled the stacks apart.”
“What did they burn?” Doug asked. “Which books?”
   “Good question. I’ve no idea. Maggie?”
“It was in the ‘T’ section. I remember seeing the letters when I was trying to get the stacks apart. I thought the chief told me it was Scientific America publications, from the 1860s, I think, and something else ...?”
“That’s right, it was,” Sharon said. “Now I remember. We had to put out requests all over the country to get some replacements. We have them all on computer, but wanted some originals. Some old Iron Age magazines burned, too, beginning in 1911. Completely destroyed.”
   Colin said, “All old paper and extremely flammable.”
“And about science, engineering,” Doug said. “Maybe we need to look for a disgruntled science or engineering student.” 
   “Why do you think it’s a student?” Sharon asked, defensive of her kids.
   “Just a hunch. Plus, there are more of them around than anyone else, that’s all.”
  “You could be right,” Colin said, and wrote it down. “But it also could be a professor or any staff member. And maybe he ... or she ... was more interested in the location of the fire. Close to the stairwell for a quick getaway? We just need to look at everything.  Now, what else?”
   “Well,” I ventured, “What burned at the other fires? Books and magazines in September, paper towels soaked in some type of accelerant in October, old carpeting and the wooden platform in December. And last night? An entire office building.” Colin was writing furiously. “But what do they have in common?” I asked.
   Standing back and looking at the boards when he finished, Colin said, “They increase in intensity ... each one burned hotter and bigger than the last.”
   “You’re right!” Doug said. “Our arsonist–if it’s only one–is getting bolder each time.”
“That’s a really scary thought,” I said quietly.
   “What about the fuses or what he uses to ignite the fires?” Sharon asked. “Is he getting better at them each time, too? Is he setting bigger fires because he understands them better after each one?
“That’s a good question,” Doug said. “Or were we just lucky enough to find the first two before they could get bigger?”
   “I don’t think so,” Colin said, “because he had to have known there were others on the library floor. Didn’t you say, Maggie, that the elevator bell rang loudly, so he must have known someone was there? And didn’t you also say you used the copier?”
  “Yes, I did. For about 15 minutes. It’s really noisy and I used it right before I heard the southwest exit door close. He... or she... had to have known I was there. So, he either thought one person, me, would be able to get out, or, he didn’t want too many casualties.”
“No, unless someone knew it was you up there,” Sharon said with a sudden insight. “What was the name of that girl from HR you forced out?”
“Allison?” I cried, shaking my head. “She’s so stupid I’m not sure she knows how to strike a match, much less deliberately plan four fires. And I haven’t seen her since late last spring. No,  I can’t imagine it’s Allison. And besides Boyle, I don’t really have any other enemies, do I?” I said, trying to think of anyone else I might have crossed. 
    Colin wrote Allison’s name on the board.

   About an hour later, we photographed the now full boards and Colin e-mailed them to Chief Callahan. The chief had told Colin he welcomed any help from the ex-agent, but our group wasn’t certain our random thoughts were anything but random thoughts. We had many more questions than we had answers. 
Chapter 68
   In our Monday morning staff meeting, the Communications team debriefed about their work with the latest fire. I praised Elaine for her quick thinking with the extra phone, flat shoes, gloves and the warm socks, saying that once again, they had all done their jobs well. 
   But silently I was ashamed I was paying particular attention to everything Charlie said. I was still certain in my heart he was not guilty. However, his name had remained on the board. 
  As the meeting was wrapping up, Charlie spoke. “My wife knows Henry Cassidy’s widow from the high school PTA. She volunteers there, my wife, I mean — it’s her alma mater. Anyway, she said they have two girls who are a few years away from college. She wondered if Tech could, or would, set up a scholarship fund for them ... to help. He was an employee, after all.”
   Steven said, “My wife knows her, too, from the hospital. Says she’s one of their best nurses. I think it’s a great idea.”
        “Good,” I said. “I’ll bring it up to President Parker this morning. Or perhaps the Wind Museum could initiate it. Surely, something can be done. Thanks for the suggestion, Charlie.” 
He wouldn’t be so kind to the family if Cassidy had died because of him, would he?  I thought. Or maybe that’s why he was being kind—out of guilt?

   On Wednesday, Chief Callahan asked Colin to join them in their own brainstorming session–an extra investigator, even a retired FBI investigator, couldn’t hurt. Colin was happy to oblige, but they seemed to be going in circles, too. The only new piece of information Colin learned is they’d been correct on the increasing intensity of the fires and the increasing sophistication of the ignitions. 
          The first was a simple paper trail fire, with torn-out pages of old books and magazines as the fuel. By the time the police had arrived and pulled the stacks apart, it had almost burned itself out. Books, as a general rule, don’t burn that well unless torn apart and sprayed with an accelerant of some type. The fire department’s arson dog had found no vapors from an accelerant. It was the torn and crumpled, decades-old dry paper that caused the massive amount of smoke. 
  Colin thought the arsonist must have set it all up while I was at the copy machine for those 15 minutes. That would have covered any noise. To test the theory, he and the chief went early the next morning to experiment before the library opened. Standing where I said I sat, Colin listened as the chief moved the stacks, but the only thing audible was a light ping preceding the movement and he thought I might not have heard it. 
          Then he used the copier, while Callahan crumpled paper. Colin heard nothing but the copier. Their conclusion was the arsonist had put it together while I was at the copy machine, then left using the stairs. My stuffy nose had obviously prevented me from detecting the smoke until I saw it.
In the Halloween fire in the engineering building, cleaning supplies from the burned closet were used as an accelerant on paper towels and old rags. Again, it was a relatively small confined fire and should easily have been out by itself after damaging the inside of the closet. 
          Unfortunately, Sharon had opened the door to investigate, creating a backdraft that burned her and allowed the flames to spread briefly into the hallway. Luckily, Professor Nash, Sharon’s colleague, had used an extinguisher to knock it down and close the door before the sprinklers were activated and flooded the hall. 
   In the tower fire, the stair’s worn carpeting and the old wooden benches were piled up and soaked with gasoline. A simple trigger device had ignited the fire, though they didn’t yet know how it had been started. It was a bigger pile of fuel than the last two. 
          And the heater at the bottom of the stairwell warming the door was interesting — the arsonist must not have wanted anyone to be accidently hurt this time ... although according to the arson investigator, with the windows blowing out, a backdraft would not have occurred. 
Was our arsonist still an amateur, not quite understanding how fires worked? And an arsonist who didn’t want anyone burned?  Was more than one person doing this? How were the fires connected? Four fires since September, yet no fires anywhere at the university in the five previous years. Still, more questions than answers, Colin said.
  Accelerant was used at the Wind Museum fire. Lubbock’s arson chief said the fire was started with papers as fuel up against the northeast corner walls. They were certain accelerants were used, but which ones and how much was another unknown at this point. 
   More than likely, one reason the fire had spread so rapidly was because holes had been made in the north and east inside walls so the flames quickly expanded to the attic area and to old insulation between sheetrock and brick. They’d found not only evidence of the holes, but the charred remains of a timing device that had served as the trigger. It could have been set as early as an hour before the fire started, giving the arsonist plenty of time to leave the scene, or as close as two minutes. Guests were concentrating on having a good time instead of noticing anyone entering or leaving the office area. An outside office door could have been used instead of the one to the hallway, the one Cassidy had opened. However, the doorknob on the outside door was  locked. 
  Yes, it appeared the arsonist was learning. That bit of analysis scared the hell out of everyone.