The lobby directory indicated the office of "Jayne Smyers, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mathematics," was on level three. I took the stairs two at a time in my gray summer suit, hit the third floor, and started down a narrow hallway. It looked and sounded devoid of life. I glanced in each open office I passed, but only one man looked up. Tall, blond, and in good shape. The nameplate on his door identified him as "Stephen Finn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Mathematics." Papers covered his desk. He couldn't have been much older than twenty-seven, but his wire-rimmed glasses gave him a maturity beyond his years. "Can I help you?" he asked.
Not hostile, but not friendly. My presence had broken his concentration.
"I'm looking for Professor Smyers," I said.
"Four doors down, on the right," he said with a forced smile. He pointed for me.
"Thanks," I replied. He did not immediately return to his work, and I felt his curious gaze as I continued down the hall.
I arrived at 3:20 p. m.-five minutes late. She was seated behind her desk and immersed in an academic journal of some sort.
"Pepper Keane." She rose from her chair and extended her right hand. I shook it. She was as tall as me and thin as a rail.
Thirtyish. Luxurious dark hair-straight, full of body, and worn short, but not so short as to be butch. She'd been blessed with high cheekbones and white teeth. Bright blue eyes. Small, firm breasts. Smooth, milky skin. She wore designer jeans and a white cotton blouse. Except for pink lipstick, I detected no makeup.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice," she said. "I'm sorry I'm late," I replied. "It took a while to find a parking space."
"Yes," she agreed, "parking is a real problem here. Sometimes even the faculty lots are full." I smiled, said nothing. She motioned to two sturdy wooden chairs in front of her desk and said, "Please, sit down." Feeling liberal, I took the one on the left.
It was a typical faculty office. Small, equipped with an old metal desk and black filing cabinets. Linoleum floor tiles designed to resemble white marble were partially covered by a Navajo rug. Bookcases overflowing with textbooks and professional journals.
She had made an effort to decorate it by placing cacti here and there. National Public Radio was barely audible on the small radio by the window behind her. There was one poster. It proclaimed: "A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle." I hadn't seen one of those in at least fifteen years.
"Would you like some coffee?" she asked. I noticed a small coffeemaker on one of the shelves to her right. The kind that brews only two cups at a time. There was also an electric grinder and a package of gourmet beans. She bought her coffee at Starbucks. I usually buy mine at the Texaco.
"No, thanks." "You sound like you have a cold. Can I make you some tea?" "Really," I said, "I'm fine." I had downed forty-four ounces of diet Coke on the drive down and didn't figure to need liquids for a while.
She poured some coffee into a mug and said, "It's one of my few vices." The mug boasted a colorful Southwestern design featuring a coyote howling at the moon.
"Everyone needs a few vices," I said. She forced a smile and sipped her coffee. "You're probably wondering what this is all about?"
"Well, Professor, I have to admit you've aroused my curiosity." She'd told me nothing on the phone, saying only that she would prefer to discuss it in person.
"I apologize for the secrecy," she said, "but I've never been involved in something like this." She paused. "Would you mind closing the door?" I reached back, gave it a good push, and listened as the latch found its place in the metal doorjamb. She took a deep breath, leaned forward, extended her long arms across the desk, and clasped her hands together. Her nails were short, but she wore polish and it matched her lipstick.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Cohen
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