The strange thing about Williams was that nobody had ever seen him. The faculty guidebook showed a gray box labeled NOT PICTURED; group photos in the Winchester yearbooks only showed Williams’s hand or arm, even though the captions advertised his presence. The college’s website gave a brief curriculum vitae but no photographic evidence. By that Monday afternoon, the first day of classes for the fall term at Winchester University, the search for Williams had, for some of his students, become almost compulsive.
It was as if Williams were hiding himself from them, as if he were teasing them somehow. It had become a tradition at Winchester for students to find a picture of their professors before classes began; in this way, it was commonly believed, they could allay some of the anxiety when the man or woman strode into the room. It was a method of one-upping the faculty, of stealing some of their precious authority.
And so this thing with Williams had become a big deal. Some of the students of Logic and Reasoning 204 were so incensed over Williams’s invisibility that they were convinced they were being tricked. One student, a Young Republican who carried a briefcase to each class, brought out his battered and veined Code of Conduct, and much of the class hovered over him while he searched the index for words like Deception and Faculty Misconduct.
It was as they were doing this that Williams himself walked into the room. He was wearing faded blue jeans, which was highly unusual for a professor at Winchester. He was also carrying nothing, which was even more curious than his dress. No papers, no manila envelopes, no coffee mug. He was wearing a flannel shirt that he had tucked in. No belt. Nikes. The professor was clean-shaven, another anomaly on campus, and his face was youthful (for a man clearly in his early sixties) and pitted with acne scars on the left side that brought to mind, both in their color and shape, pennies flattened on a railroad track. Yet he was handsome in a certain light, and he moved so softly and quietly that he gave the impression of extreme gentleness, his hands sometimes out before him as if he were feeling his way into the dark or perhaps gesturing, Don’t be scared; I’m right behind you.
Professor Williams took his place at the podium at the front of the room. There were fifteen students in the class. Eight female, seven male. They were all white, which was the rule rather than the exception in a Winchester classroom. They were all sharply dressed in clothes their parents had bought them over the summer. Many of them were upperclassmen, as this course was a prerequisite for third-year seminars in philosophy and English. Because the students were mostly philosophy and lit majors, the room had an air of uncertainty. These were students who did not know where they were going in life but were generally accomplished. “Smart kids,” a Winchester professor once wryly said of his philosophy students, “who were all seduced by Descartes’ brain-in-a-vat theory in Philo 101.”
Williams opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say a word, someone’s cell phone chirped. He waited while the student shamefully dug in her bag to find the offending object. In fact, the professor seemed more anxious than the girl: he looked down, redfaced, at his podium while the girl furiously mashed buttons. Some professors would embarrass the girl further, make her hum the ring tone or have the conversation while standing in front of the class or something just as discomforting.
But Williams simply waited. And when the phone had been silenced he said, in a voice that was soft and commanding at the same time, “There’s been a murder.”
No one knew how to take this announcement. A young man in the back row laughed aloud.
Williams smiled. He stared down at his podium again and brushed something off the surface. “Not a real murder,” he said. “No. This is a murder that may happen in the future. A . . .” The man paused, looked up at the class, waved his hand in the air as if he were trying to come up with the word by catching it in his palm.
“A hypothetical,” said a girl in the front row.
“Yes!” said Williams. He was pleased with the word, as it suited the conditions of his story quite well. “A hypothetical. A potential murder. Murder in the future tense. Because, you see, many things have to happen before this murder is to occur. Many things that you, if you are clever enough, can keep from happening.”
He fell silent. They met in the Seminary Building, the oldest of Winchester’s classroom buildings. Sunlight poured in through the high, bare windows and a few students were shielding their eyes from it. This was a bane of this particular classroom, Seminary East. The sun thing, as it was referred to, had become such a problem that afternoon classes, as Logic and Reasoning 204 was, were often canceled because the fierce light would give the lecturer or the students migraine headaches.
“What kinds of things?” someone finally said.
Williams turned toward the dry erase board and searched the tray for something to write with, but because it was the first day of classes and professors were hoarding their supplies, no one had left a marker there. Sighing, he turned back to the class.
“Time, for instance,” he said. “There is the variable of time. If the victim and her killer or killers --- ”
“Potential killer,” said the girl who had offered hypothetical. She was into it now. She was tapping notes on her laptop and nodding feverishly as Williams spoke.
“Yes. If the victim and her potential killer or killers are not found in a certain amount of time, then she will die.”
“How long?” someone asked.
“Six weeks from Wednesday,” the professor said, and everyone noted that the fall term was exactly six weeks long. The fall term was followed by what students referred to as Winchester term, an eight-week session when many students studied abroad. Logic and Reasoning 204 --- and all the classes during the fall term --- promised to be highly competitive, because so many students would be trying to impress the Europe and South America Committees to win a coveted spot on a foreign campus.
“The other variables,”Williams went on, “are these: place, motive, and circumstance.”
It was obvious that Williams would have written these four words on the board if he’d had the means. The girl in front put each word on the screen of her laptop: TIME, PLACE, MOTIVE, CIRCUMSTANCE. Bolded them all.
“So,” he said then. “I’ll see you Wednesday.”
The professor turned to walk out the door of Seminary East, which was still standing open. Class had lasted just ten minutes. Almost imperceptibly, a moment of panic passed over the students. They were trapped between wanting to get out and enjoy the rest of the day (Williams’s class, so late in the afternoon, would be their last) and finding out what Williams and his missing girl were really about.
“Wait,” the girl with the laptop finally said.
Williams was almost out the door, but he spun in the threshold and said, “Yes?”
“How are we supposed to stop it?” she asked.
Williams came back into the room. He had a cautious expression on his face, as if he were wary about his students, so young and innocent, getting involved in such a mess.
“What kinds of questions are pertinent?” he asked.
The girl seemed confused. She looked at Williams over the top of her computer. She knew that she needed to tread lightly here. She was caught, as she often was, between the impulse to dominate the action in the classroom and remaining so silent that the teacher forgot her presence. Thus the laptop; she had found that the sound of her fingers on the keys made her noticeable. She didn’t need to talk, didn’t need to fear getting on the other students’ nerves with her theories and ideas. She could peck at the keyboard during lectures and the professor would know she was engaged. And it had worked. She passed all her classes with high marks and remained well liked on campus, not a bookish nerd at all but rather as popular as a firmly middle-class girl with frizzy, stubborn hair and square-lens glasses (the kind she saw Joan Didion wearing on C-Span) who read Willa Cather in her free time could possibly be. She was most definitely in, as the Delta sisters she hung around with might say. She and her friend Summer McCoy referred to themselves as Betweeners --- those girls who were comfortable enough to refuse to rush a sorority but connected enough to party at sorority and fraternity houses. Between worlds: it was, the girl felt, the best place to be at Winchester.
Yet here was Williams asking, What kinds of questions are pertinent? --- a question that begged other, deeper questions, and she was stumped. If she answered, whole philosophies might open up and the class might run down an irrelevant current that would take up the full hour. If she remained silent, Williams might take her for a passive-aggressive brownnoser who hollowly pecked on computer keys.
“Who is she?” asked a boy in the back row, saving the girl from having to make her decision. He was the student who had laughed earlier, his normal classroom gesture. So many things seemed, for some reason, ridiculously absurd to him. Meaningless. Logic, for instance. He had signed up for Williams’s class and had immediately wondered why he would waste his time. There was no logic, he knew. There were only vague choices to be made, problems to be contemplated but not solved, areas of the strictest gray to subjectively drone on about (because if you solved those questions, what would future classes have to talk about?). Yet after those choices were made and the problems considered, the world stayed pretty much how it was: maddeningly off-kilter.
His name was Brian House. Like a lot of people, Brian had learned to act at Winchester, to be someone he wasn’t. No one knew, for instance, of the secret pain he had been suffering for the past ten months. No one knew that he didn’t listen to those bands --- Built to Spill, Spoon, the Shins --- that he wore on his T-shirts. He went about his business --- the fraternities, the intramurals, the study sessions --- as if he cared, but really he loathed the whole process.He had thought about not returning to Winchester after the summer, but how could he tell his parents that? After the void that his older brother’s death had left in their lives, there was no way they could understand why he, the one who had been spared, would squander his opportunities. His mother had even begun wearing Winchester U sweatshirts; she had slapped a MY CHILD IS A WINCHESTER COLONEL bumper sticker on her Volvo. Brian knew that he couldn’t disappoint her by letting her in on his dirty secret: that it had all become, after Marcus, pitifully insignificant to him.
Brian was tall, nearly lanky, and he had been shaving his head because that’s what his brother had done. The girls at Winchester took Brian’s apathy for a sort of sexy rebellion, and they were often eager to share ideas with him in his dorm room late at night. And that was another thing. He had a girlfriend back home in New York, and shouldn’t he feel bad about deceiving her? He did and he didn’t. On one hand, what he was doing was clearly a kind of betrayal. He knew what that felt like. Yet a part of him, that uncaring and atrophied part of his soul, could not bring himself to feel sorry for his actions. In the end it wouldn’t amount to anything but a girl being hurt. It was, like all things, illogical. It wasn’t life and death.
“That is the first question,” said Williams now. He was becoming more engaged. It appeared that he wanted to give answers to certain questions, but the right questions had to be asked first. “Who is she? Her name is Polly.”
Some of the students laughed. “Funny name,” said someone.
“Yes, it is funny,” agreed Williams.
“ ‘Polly wants a cracker,’ ” said Brian, “ ‘but I think I should get off her first.’ It’s a Kurt Cobain song.” The boy frowned. He did not like artifice, especially artifice that had been stolen from popular culture, perhaps because his own artificialness --- his own insistence to put on a face and conform --- was what he most disliked about himself. He decided that he was not going to like this class, no matter what happened from this point forward.
“That’s right,”Williams said. “But there are other questions.”
“How old is she?” called a student from the back.
“She is eighteen years old.” The average age of the class when they first came to Winchester.
“What does she look like?” asked another student.
“She’s petite. She wears a lot of jewelry. She has various piercings: high on her ears, in her earlobes, in her navel. She has a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on her lower back. She has auburn streaks in her hair and is self-conscious about her height. She wishes she were taller.” In short, she looked just like many of them.
“Where is she?” asked Brian.
“Place,” said Williams.
“How did she get there?” wondered the boy.
“Circumstance.” The last of the underscored ideas.Translation: we aren’t that far along yet.
“Bullshit,” Brian muttered.
“Maybe,” said Williams. “Maybe it is all bullshit. But Polly is in danger, and if you do not find her before your six weeks are up, then she will be murdered.”
The class was silent once again. Seminary East’s internal clock ticked further forward, the light touching the face of Williams’s podium.
“What does all this have to do with logic?” asked the boy with the briefcase. He was the most practical of the bunch. He was the only student in the class taking Logic and Reasoning 204 as an elective --- that is, as a chosen punishment. He was a liberal arts major, a throwback at Winchester. In the education reform–obsessed 1980s, Winchester had become a university. This small college in the central Indiana town of DeLane would always be overshadowed by the famous Catholic school 150 miles to the northwest, which was unfortunate, considering, as the brochures gladly pointed out, Winchester graduated more Rhodes and Fulbright scholars than Notre Dame and IU Bloomington combined.
When Winchester became a university, the curriculum predictably became more technical. More specific. Almost twenty years later there was still a rift among the faculty, and on some of the old guard’s letterhead the seal still read Winchester College. The father of the boy with the briefcase had gone to the old Winchester and was now a professor at Temple in mathematics. His son was not nearly as brilliant with numbers, but he was always the one to take the straightest and least difficult line to the end of the maze.
His real name was Dennis Flaherty, but on campus he was jokingly called Dennis the Menace, which was irony in the highest degree: Dennis would not menace anyone even if he deserved it. His pragmatism was used mostly to keep him out of confrontation, and because of his ability to play the devil’s advocate so adroitly he was an esteemed member of his father’s fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau. Dennis lived on the top floor of the Tau house in a single room that could have housed ten. He had dark, curly hair that he liked to shake down over his eyes. It was mystifying to the other Taus how he could attract women so effortlessly. These girls would come to Dennis’s room, prompting the brothers to sweep by and cast glances inside to see four feet on the floor, which was an old (and oft-broken) rule of the fraternity houses. But an hour later and the door would be shut and some soft music (Mingus or Coltrane or Monk) would be playing. The Taus wondered, for example, how he had attracted Savannah Kleppers, who was a 9 on the infamous Tau Scale. Yet there she was, disappearing into Dennis’s room almost every evening.
The answer was charm. Dennis had it in spades. He could talk himself out of any lie, any malfeasance, and yet the same skill allowed him to talk himself into situations as well. When the fraternity was fined, as they often were, it was Dennis they sent to the Greek Authority as a liaison. If the head of the committee was a female, the fine would inevitably be lessened or struck from the record altogether. Dennis dressed differently (he favored Brooks Brothers suits and Mephisto shoes and his omnipresent briefcase), he spoke differently (he often used words like corollary and incentive in regular conversation), and he carried himself differently. Indeed, Dennis Flaherty was different from most of the young men on the Winchester campus, and he was well aware of that fact.
“Logic is the destruction of fallacy,” said Williams, answering Dennis’s question bluntly. “It’s an inherently inductive or deductive process that builds meaning out of a set of abstract notions.” Everyone in the class braced for a lecture. Some students took out their notebooks from their backpacks and clicked up the tips of their pens. But Williams veered back to Polly. “Logic will help you find out where she is,” he said. And then, as if it were just an afterthought: “In time.”
“What are our clues?” asked the girl with the computer.
“The first set will be e-mailed to you this evening,” the professor answered.
When there were no more questions,Williams walked out of the room. He did not say good-bye. He did not say anything as he left. Afterward, many of the students of Logic and Reasoning 204 convened in the hallway, which was empty by this time of day, and talked about the strangeness of the class. Some of them were happy that they would ostensibly not have to put in any work. The students at Winchester called these classes “float credits” --- classes where you just had to be there to pass. When they speculated on what the e-mailed “clues” might contain, Brian said that he didn’t know and didn’t care because he wasn’t going to access them anyway.
The girl with the computer was intrigued, however. She stood outside the circle of students, her warm laptop clutched to her chest. She was thinking about Dr.Williams and wondering how she was going to crack the code of the class. This is the way it was, at Winchester and at her Catholic high school back in Kentucky. There was always a code, always a design that had to be divined. Once it was cracked, passing the class was easy. But in Williams’s class, there seemed to be no apparent code. Or at least not yet. This appealed to the girl because finally, for the first time in her two years at Winchester, she was going to face a real challenge: how to solve Williams and his strange class. No syllabus, no text, no notes. No code! There was a certain novelty to it all, and this intrigued her --- but of course she couldn’t tell anyone that. When Dennis asked her how she had liked the lecture, she muttered a neutral “Okay.” (He, she saw in his face, had liked it very much. But he would, wouldn’t he?) Okay was not how she felt about Williams, however. She felt, as she walked out the doors of Seminary that afternoon, strangely electric.
The girl’s name was Mary Butler. She was a junior, an English major like her mother had been. She lived in the largest female dorm on campus, Brown Hall, in one of the dorm’s most expansive single rooms. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get along with roommates. To the contrary: she and Summer McCoy had roomed together for two years and had become very good friends. (When Summer had mono during their sophomore year, it was Mary who took care of her and nursed her back to health. When Mary and Dennis Flaherty broke up, Summer was there every night with Grasshopper cookies and Agatha Christie mysteries on VHS --- they both agreed that there was something hot about Poirot.) No, Mary lived alone because for the last year she had found herself wanting some space. Some of her own space: to think, to decide on where she was going with her life, to be silent and careful with her emotions. So her decision to single was a matter of “trust” --- a word she used often and without hyperbole.
It hadn’t always been that way. In the time Before Dennis, as she referred to it, she was much more trusting. After Dennis, after he had dumped her and started going with Savannah Kleppers, she drew herself in a little and began to suspect that the world wasn’t as clean-edged as it had once seemed.
She had truly loved Dennis. They had dated their freshman year for about six months. Theirs was a relationship of politeness, of soft awkwardness. He brought her candy, cards inscribed with poetry, flowers. She had dated in high school but was still relatively new at it; he sensed this and treated her like an acolyte, as if she were some precious thing that he was initiating into the adult world. Mary at once hated that and desperately wanted it, and afterward, in the After Dennis phase, she wondered if he had been setting her up for betrayal all that time. It had been, after all, so easy to do.
Mary told Dennis she loved him. She said it aloud, something she had never done before. And she thought --- she thought, but she could not be sure --- that he had told her that he loved her, too. In those days After Dennis she caught herself thinking, Never again. Never again would she be taken for granted. She was still well liked, still popular, still “so sweet,” as the Delta girls usually said of her, but inside she was always looking out for those who would do her harm. “It’s a different world up there,” her mother said on the phone. “They’ll take you for all you’re worth.” It was easy to dismiss her mom, a woman who had been out of Kentucky only twice, both times on vacation. But there was something truthful about it. Winchester was a different place. There was so much drama here, so many tenuous alliances that it was difficult to decide what you could talk about and what you must keep to yourself.
And that wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was quite nice in her single room at Brown, peaceful and quiet and serene. It overlooked the quad, so she could look out the window and see the campus from behind glass, like a diorama, but not be forced to live it 24/7. She loved the parties, the people, the act you put on when you wereout there. But After Dennis she found that she couldn’t do it all the time. Up here, Mary didn’t have to act in that soap opera if she didn’t want to. She could stand well outside of it and pity the girls who flung themselves into the game so readily.
Sometimes she looked out that window and wondered what Dennis was doing right then. Sometimes she thought she saw him, his curly hair bouncing along, down below her. Every time this happened her heart squeezed, her breath caught in her throat. For a long time she had gone out of her way to avoid him, but inevitably they had begun to run into each other on campus. And now, of course, he was in one of her classes. She nearly died when he walked in to Seminary East. He saw her and winked --- only Dennis Flaherty could wink in the twenty-first century and get away with it --- and sat four chairs to her right. It was the closest he’d been to her in two years.
She was thinking about how she was going to drop the class and pick up something else on such short notice when Williams walked in.
Immediately, Mary noticed something different about him. The way he walked, the way he spoke to his class: so not like a professor. And when he launched into his story about the girl named Polly, Mary forgot all about Dennis and was lost in this bizarre class.
“Who’s the prof?” Summer asked her when they met up in the dining commons that evening.
“Williams,” Mary said.
“Hmm. Never heard of him,” the other girl said.
And neither had Mary. Which was strange, because she had gofered for at least ten professors around campus. Surely someonewould have mentioned him to her. Surely she would have seen him at a Christmas party or something. Not only did Williams fail to appear in any of her three face books, he was also missing from her annuals. There were no publications listed in the campus magazine, no news of him on the faculty page, no references in the recent edition of the school paper. It didn’t make any sense. It was, as Summer liked to say, freaky.
That night, Mary browsed Winchester’s website, trying to find information about him. He was a member of the philosophy faculty, and he was listed as an associate professor. There was a CV: BA from Indiana University, 1964; MA from same, 1970; PhD from Tulane, 1976. That was all. Google him, she thought, but then she remembered that she didn’t know his first name.All she knew was the initial that was on her schedule of classes: L.
Earlier, she had repeatedly refreshed her screen, attempting to be the first to read the e-mailed clues. But now it was 8:00 p.m., and still no message from Williams had arrived in her in-box.
She took a shower (along with the biggest single room in the dorm, she also had her own bathroom and kitchenette; some girls on the third floor had taken to calling Mary’s room the Hyatt) and tried to take her mind off the class, but she couldn’t. She had been intrigued by Professor L.Williams, and had even found him to be kind of sexy. This was not unusual for Mary. She had formed a nagging and perhaps unhealthy crush on Dr. Cunningham last year. This would not have been odd had Dr. Cunningham not been strange in most every way, from his lisp to the pink ten-speed with a basket that he rode about campus, and it did not escape Mary that maybe she found some professors attractive only because the other students did not. Many of the students in Logic and Reasoning 204 had found Williams creepy --- they had said as much in the hallway after class.
Out of the shower now, her hair wet and a towel around her --- another perk of the single room was Mary’s ability to walk around naked --- she logged on to her Winchester account and checked her e-mail again.
There was a message from Professor Williams. The subject line read, “First Clue.”
Mary opened the e-mail and read.
Polly was last seen on Friday, August the first at a party. This was a going-away party in Polly’s honor, because she would be leaving for college soon. All her friends were there, including an ex-boyfriend named Mike. Mike and Polly had problems. Mike would sometimes hit Polly.
One night toward the end of their relationship Polly had to call the police, but she refused to press charges once they showed up. Polly returned from the going-away party that night to her father’s home on During Street, where she was staying for the summer. Her father was awake when she came home, watching David Letterman. He told the police that he had sat with Polly and watched television, and when she fell asleep he carried her to bed, “like I used to do when she was a girl.” He hasn’t seen her since.
Police speculate that early in the morning of August the second, Polly left the house. Her red Honda Civic was found beside Stribbling Road, about twenty miles out of town. When Mike Reynolds, Polly’s ex-boyfriend, was questioned, he of course denied seeing Polly after the going-away party. The problem with Mike’s culpability in Polly’s disappearance is this: Mike was at the party until the next morning, and many witnesses told investigators that they had seen Mike sleeping on the couch. In Polly’s car, investigators found no traces that Polly had been planning to leave for an extended time: there were no bags in the trunk, no changes of clothes in the backseat. The only fingerprints in the car were Polly’s. There was no sign of struggle.
Polly’s father received a telephone call on Monday, August 4. The caller sounded distant, as if she were “at the bottom of the well.” Polly’s father thought he had heard the caller say, “I’m here,” but by the time he was questioned by police he couldn’t be sure. Investigators traced all calls made to the During Street residence on the fourth of August, and there was one unusual call made at 7:13 that evening. Unfortunately, the number was unknown.
When Mary returned to her in-box, she saw that Professor Williams had sent another message. It was called “The Syllabus.” Mary clicked on it and waited while an image materialized on her monitor. The image was of a man being executed at the gallows. Mary could see the smudged expressions of some onlookers who stood below, watching. There was a blurring around the edges of the photograph, as if it had been taken just as the man dropped through the trapdoor. The man was hooded, and someone had cropped an image onto the velvet hood. Mary squinted to see it, and finally she made it out.
It was a question mark.
The mark was like a shadow, vaguely discernible. It was, Mary thought, as if it had been knitted into the fabric.
On Wednesday Mary noticed that two or three of the female students were not in class. She wondered if they had been scared away by the picture of the execution. She wondered if any of them would report Williams and if he could get in trouble for sending a picture like that through campus e-mail. But mostly she wondered about Polly, and she was eager to run her theories by Professor Williams. She had spent most of the previous night fleshing out those theories, and even though she had been exhausted for Dr. Kiseley’s lit class that morning, she was feeling that hum again, that electric charge she’d felt Monday after class.
When he came in --- today he wore blue jeans again and a Winchester U T-shirt --- he was carrying a dry erase marker and a few loose pieces of transparency paper. He took his position at the podium. “Any questions?” he asked without any greeting.
Mary got her first theory organized in her mind, but just when she was about to speak Brian House said from behind her, “We all want to know what this is.”
“What what is?” asked Williams softly.
“This,” said the boy. “All of this. This class. Polly. That . . .” He couldn’t bring himself to say “picture.”
“This is Logic and Reasoning 204,”Williams said dismissively. A few students laughed.
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” Brian said. He was sitting up straight now. He was pointing at the professor, accusing him.
“Do you mean to say, Mr. House” --- and this was the first time, they all noted, that he had called any of them by name --- “that this is all a dupe?”
“Well, yeah. Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Isn’t all knowledge a dupe? Isn’t the rational world itself full of inconsistencies and tricks? Trapdoors? False challenges? How do you know that every day when you walk across campus, you’re actually swimming through a sea of monads? Because we tell you that it is. How do you know that Pride and Prejudice is a masterpiece? Because we say it is. How do you know that a certain proof explains the meaning of light or the speed of sound? Because it is written in the book. But what if the equation is not square? What if the proof is a little off? What if the measurements were proved to be false? What if that which you had always believed to be logical thought turned out to be --- God forbid --- wrong. The world is dictated by a set of principles, and most of those principles are granted to you here, in these decorated halls.” Williams raised his arms, encompassing the walls and the light and the dancing dust of Seminary East.
“Are you saying that what we learn at Winchester is a lie?” asked someone else.
“Not all of it, no,” said Williams. “Not all. But certainly some. The trick is finding out what is the real and what is the fake.”
“What’s that have to do with this class?” asked Brian.
“Only this,” Williams said sharply. “I am telling you that the best way to learn logic is to decode a puzzle. And this is what Polly’s disappearance is: an intricate puzzle. Now some of you may take offense to this. Some of you may be bewildered by my choice of pedagogy. But you will learn to think, and induce, and carve out the blight of lazy thought --- those fallacies and indiscretions and wrong turns. Only the best thinkers among you will find Polly, and those are the students to whom I will grant As.”
Brian rested. He seemed to be satisfied with that answer. He began to inspect his quick-bitten fingernails.
Mary had her theory formed now. “Polly’s father abducted her,” she said, more quickly than she would have liked. By the time she was finished, she was nearly breathless. She didn’t want to appear desperate, not this early in the game.
“How?” the professor replied.
“Why?” Dennis Flaherty put in, leaning forward in the front row to look quizzically at Mary.
“Motive,” said Professor Williams. “What I want to know now is how? How could the father possibly be responsible?”
“Because . . . ,” Mary began, but she could not go on. The professor was questioning her again, and she failed that test for a second time.
“Because of Mike,” said Brian.
“Ah,” said Williams. “Mike. The father and Mike --- they don’t like each other?”
“Probably not,” Brian offered, perhaps because he had experienced a similar situation: a bitter father, a beautiful girl, threatening phone calls from the despondent old man.
“You’re right,” said the professor. “They don’t like each other. In fact, they hate each other. Polly’s father once told Mike that he would kill him if he ever caught him out alone. But this doesn’t answer the question that Miss Butler is implicitly posing: Why the father? Why abduct your own daughter?”
“To protect her!” Mary almost shouted. She was feeling that cold, familiar rush when she put the pieces into place. That old energy in the blood. She had to be close.
“That’s interesting,” said Williams gently. Mary looked at Williams and saw that he was staring at her in a way that betrayed his interest in her. She knew that he was keeping her on a line, tethering her to all the intricate possibilities. Blushing, she finally looked away. “To protect her,” he went on. “So you’re saying that Mike is such a danger to Polly that her own father must abduct her, lie to the police, grieve publicly about his daughter’s false disappearance, and manage to keep the ruse intact for almost a month? That’s impressive for a little old schoolteacher with not much money in the bank.”
Mary realized how ridiculous it sounded now, coming from him. She could only look at the flickering cursor on her laptop monitor.
“But if this Mike is really dangerous,” said Dennis, taking up for Mary, “if he’s psychopathic in some way, maybe Polly’s father feels that her life is threatened enough to hide her.”
“Hide her where?”Williams asked.
“An aunt’s house,” he said. Mary wasn’t sure if Dennis really believed in her theory or was just grabbing the loose strand of the idea and running with it to save her the shame.
“How many of you believe this?” Professor Williams asked the class. The light from the window was approaching him. Their time was running out. No one in the class raised a hand.
“But in a murder --- ” said Brian now.
“A kidnapping,” the professor corrected him.
“ --- in a kidnapping, isn’t the father the immediate suspect? Isn’t that the rule? A girl is taken and her father did it. Maybe he’s a sexual deviant.”
“Polly’s father was a suspect,” Professor Williams said then, and Mary’s heart started up again. “But he was never a suspect for the convoluted reason that Ms. Butler suggests he should be. Class: what is the real problem with the theory Ms. Butler is presenting?”
Again she crashed down shamefully, her gaze on the hot light of the screen.
Limply, a girl in Mary’s row raised her hand. “She is going to be murdered,” the girl said, casting a look at Mary that said, Sorry.
“Think about it,” the professor said, his impatience with them showing for the first time. “I’ve told you that she is to be murdered in six weeks. That is a given. So why would the father ‘rescue’ Polly from Mike if he --- Daddy --- were going to kill her in six short weeks?”
Williams shuffled the papers he had brought in. He turned off Seminary East’s lights, and the room fell as dark as it could given the natural light that poured in through the windows. Then there was the whir of an overhead projector, and a square of yellow, sickly light blanched the northern wall. The professor slipped the topmost sheet off the stack and put it on the machine. It was a photograph of a girl in a summer dress. She was standing barefoot on the grass and holding out her arm, palm forward, as if she didn’t want her picture taken.Williams didn’t have to tell them: this was Polly. He put on the next page. This was a shot of a tattooed young man sitting on a couch. He had drunk too much and his eyes were rimmed red. He was shirtless and sunburned, his bare shoulders pink and peeling. An invisible girl, who was off to the right of the shot, had her arm around him. Mike. The third page: an overweight man standing to the right of a class of young children. Polly’s father. The children all had their eyes censored out by thin black bars. And then a fourth page: a house, a simple Cape Cod with a dead vegetable garden off to one side and an American flag blowing against the eaves. Polly’s house, the last place she had been seen.
“So now,” said Professor Williams, turning to write on the board, “you know these things.” He wrote August 1. “This is the last day Polly was seen. You also know the date when her car was found.” He wrote, August 2. “You know that Mike was in the house of the party all night on August first. You know Polly’s father was the last to see her late on the evening of August first, and that he watched television with his daughter before she went to bed. And you know that whoever kidnapped Polly is her potential murderer. Is that it?”
No one in the class spoke. Upstairs, in Seminary High, students were getting out of class, their desks scooting almost musically across the floor.
Mary thought, Something else. But she couldn’t organize the thought, much less verbalize it. It was there, right in front of her, floating nebulously.
“All right then,” said Williams. He gathered up the papers and put the marker in the tray, a gift to whomever used the classroom next, and turned off his machine. “It’s important to remember that this class is an NF.” He was referring to a “No Friday”;Williams’s class was coveted mostly because it would be held on Mondays and Wednesdays only. The students would have Friday afternoons off, and so Mary knew she would not be able to talk to him again before next week. Any theories she had would have to be laid out now, or else she risked other students beating her to the punch.
“The phone call,” Mary said then. Her heart was beating fast again, and her face was growing hot.
“What’s that?” asked Williams.
“ ‘I’m here,’ ” she said. “The strange phone call to her father. The one with the girl in the well. Polly was calling him. She got to a phone somehow. She . . .”
“Circumstance,” said Brian mockingly, and the back row cracked up.
Williams took up the marker and wrote on the board, August 4.
Then he said softly, “ ‘I’m here,’ she said. ‘I’m here.’ Was it Polly? Was it a prank? And where is ‘here’?” He didn’t turn on the fluorescents, and the room was yellow, almost golden with the streaking light. He was outside of the light, behind it, frontlit, nearly invisible behind a curtain of Seminary dust. “Now, ladies and gentlemen,” Williams said, capping his marker with a sharp click, “you know that you have just over five weeks to find Polly, or else she will be murdered.”
Excerpted from OBEDIENCE © Copyright 2011 by Will Lavender. Reprinted with permission by Three Rivers Press. All rights reserved.