I stared at the windows, miserable. Outside Emerson Hall a light snow was busily erasing the brick walks of Harvard Yard, prelude to another nor'easter. Already the winter was off to a punishing start, with a foot of fresh snow delivered to our doorstep each weekend like the Sunday paper. With the snow came a blistering cold off the Charles that in its more inspired gusts brought tears to the eyes of poor bastards like myself who were unlucky enough to live on the outskirts of Cambridge. (The only thing that had spared my lesser extremities from frostbite was the fact that I kept a mental list of every radiator in a three-mile vicinity, and had mapped the shortest routes between them.) Tonight I would be making the trek home sans overcoat, since in the hullabaloo following the party someone had walked off with it, leaving me only my muffler and gloves. I consoled myself that I'd been meaning to get a new coat anyway, though it remained in question exactly how I was going to afford it. My father's checks had stopped; I had spent all but $1.30 of my last paycheck and for the last three nights had been subsisting on ketchup sandwiches.
It occurred to me now that if I were to lose my job feeding and watering the department's various colonies of lab rats, I might simply lie down in the most comfortable-looking snowbank I encountered on my walk home and go to sleep. I dimly recalled something from my brief tenure in medical school (courtesy of one of our more ghoulish professors) about hypothermia's being among the more painless means of suicide....
"He's ready for you, Finch."
A chastened Halliday had emerged from McLaughlin's office looking several inches shorter and considerably less conceited. I rose. As we passed one another in the doorway, Halliday gave me a shove with his shoulder that sent me into the frame. I struck my funny bone on the doorknob and winced.
"Dreadfully sorry," Halliday said with a look that implied he was anything but.
Inside the office McLaughlin stood at the windows contemplating the snow. Given the ungodly hour, I had half expected to find him in dressing gown and pajamas and was surprised to discover him dressed for the lectern in an exquisite Savile Row suit of worsted wool, complete with French collar and cuff links. On the whole I would have preferred the pajamas, since the notion of his rising stiffly from his bed and walking to the bureau to solemnly select cuff links deeply unsettled me.
"Take a seat, Mr. Finch," he said without turning.
I hurried to the nearest leather chair across from his great mahogany desk. He proceeded to ignore me, employing that tried-and-true technique of displeased parents of Leaving Me to Think About What I'd Done. The silence grew heavy, the only sounds an occasional gurgling from the radiator and my own stomach. I glanced around the office and was surprised to see on the bookshelves among the standard texts on social psychology (including McLaughlin's own, currently in its third edition) several occult works with titles like On the Threshold of the Unseen and Modern Spiritualism. And there on the wall, beside the framed diplomas from Harvard and Oxford (a D.Sc., awarded in 1889), what appeared to be a certificate of recognition from the American Society for Psychical Research. But before I could examine the calligraphy any more closely, McLaughlin spoke, and my interrogation commenced.
"I wonder, Mr. Finch," he began, his voice bearing the hint of a British accent, "if you wouldn't mind sharing your thoughts on how Professor Schneider's rats might have escaped from the basement?"
"I assume it was someone's idea of a practical joke."
"Certainly not," I said, appending a hasty "sir."
This exchange took place without his ever once turning to look at me. Another uncomfortable silence fell, after which he announced, apropos of nothing, "I don't much care for Prohibition. To be perfectly honest, I see no reason a man shouldn't enjoy a drink at the end of the day ... or the academic term, as the case may be. Preferably sherry of course"finally turning from the windows"though I'm told the cocktail of choice among graduate fellows is wood alcohol or similar industrial solvents, isn't that right, Mr. Finch?"
Copyright Joseph Gangemi 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Viking Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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