Monday, December 27, 2010

Contagion by Karl Miller

Lisa Stanley stopped talking for a moment. Puffiness surrounded the teaching assistant’s light brown eyes as she sniffled into a tissue.

A hurricane and a death. This had to be a tough few days for her, Kevin Pierce thought to himself.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Where were we?”

The insurance investigator gently reminded her of the last question he had asked.

“Oh, right,” she said with a nervous laugh. “Dr. Hebert was spending a lot of time in the new Sociology Department offices after the hurricane. He’d been acting secretive and keeping his door closed a lot. Normally, he was a bit paranoid that he was being watched, you know, after all the press he’d gotten before, but recently it had gotten worse. He complained of headaches and chest pain. I told him he should see a doctor but he wouldn’t. ‘Real men don’t do that,’ he said,” she recalled, a small smile sliding briefly across her face.

Pierce recalled the stories about Dr. Kenneth Hebert, a former wunderkind who had earned a biology degree from Harvard at 19 and a PhD in sociology from Princeton by 23. A fully tenured Stanford professor at 31, Hebert briefly became a minor celebrity in certain political circles when his affiliation with an extremist group resulted in his removal from teaching. The subsequent lawsuit reportedly settled north of $5 million, but led to his exile at Southeast Florida University , a sleepy fourth-tier college in Boca Raton , where his vitriolic lectures still drew scads of adoring fans. Hebert’s death had triggered a nervous University into alerting their insurance companies about potential litigation, which in turn had brought the investigator into the wake of one of the worst storms of the decade.

“And when was the last time you saw him?” Pierce asked.

“Well, I found him,” she said and paused. Her dark brown eyes glistened.

“Before that, I mean.”

“The night before he died. He was working late because we had a generator.”

“OK – I know the police are checking on the possibility the generator caused carbon monoxide poisoning. Who set that up?”

“Maintenance people for the university. It was a few feet outside the door.”

“Is the generator still there?”

“It might be, but we did get power back yesterday – they probably haven’t taken it away yet.”

Pierce asked a few more questions then concluded the interview. As he packed away his recorder, Stanley spoke up.

“Everyone tells me to get an attorney. I guess people assume I was having an affair with Dr. Hebert and that I did something to him because he wouldn’t leave his wife. If anything, she’d be the type to murder him – she was always calling the office, really mean on the phone, like she suspected me.” She sniffled again.

Pierce believed her. You had to believe someone going into a field as manifestly non-lucrative as sociology. Still, he knew some people lied brilliantly.

The investigator walked to his generic rental car, and drove from Stanley ’s apartment in West Boca to the main campus of Southeast Florida University . Debris piles lined the road, waiting for overwhelmed sanitation trucks to visit. Jagged trees, stripped by the storm, dotted the yards he passed. Despite the damage, Boca was a beautiful place, albeit in a superficial way. It was a bit incongruous to him that the mostly tasteful haven of the nouveau riche stood on the former site of a huge military base in World War II and – it was rumored – a secret government Cold War laboratory.

Pierce pulled onto the campus and grabbed a map from a helpful student at the visitor’s center. He headed past soccer fields and newly constructed buildings to a more remote part of the school where the facilities were not so pristine. In looking at the campus guide, it actually noted that Building H-12 was one of three structures on campus left from military days. It had been unoccupied for decades and only minimally used for storage the times when it was utilized, that is, until it became the new home of the Sociology Department.

He parked and took out his phone. Pierce called the college maintenance department and left a message on their answering machine. He followed that with a call to the police department and found the autopsy report would still be several days away. Then he called Hebert’s widow.

Pierce identified himself and gave his condolences.

“How can I help you?” she asked curtly.

“I was checking into your husband’s death and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”

Mrs. Hebert cut him off. “Why don’t you ask that little tramp? I put Kenneth through grad school, back when we had nothing. Then he gets some money, and suddenly he wants someone younger. Look, I’ve got nothing to say to you. Talk to my lawyer.” She promptly hung up.

After making some notes, Pierce emerged into stiflingly-hot September air that covered him like a blanket. H-12 actually still looked like an old barracks building. Paint was gone in places, and much of the exposed timber looked rotten. In contrast to the activity in the rest of the campus, he saw no one.

Pierce walked to the door of the building and was surprised that it opened. He moved down an eerily quiet corridor past a wall decorated with posters for studying abroad. Dim florescent lights gave the interior a soft, artificial feel. Water stains marked most of the ceiling tiles. A dingy tan leather sofa sat on one side of the corridor, a college newspaper tossed haphazardly to one side of it.

At the end of the corridor, the investigator reached the Sociology Department. This time the door didn’t open. He looked around cautiously then extracted a credit card from his wallet. Pierce inserted the card by the lock, gave a push, and the door yielded. He flipped on the lights.

The Department clearly wasn’t taking up a huge amount of the university budget. The main office was just as dilapidated as the rest of the building, with heavy metal desks and filing cabinets that looked like they could have been left from the military days. In the far left corner, a slightly open door carried Dr. Hebert’s name. Pierce went through.

Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Outside the office window, a generator sat a few feet from the building, seemingly not close enough to let fumes into Hebert’s office. He noticed, though, torn grass by it, probably from when the machine had been manhandled into position by maintenance personnel.

As he turned away from the window, Pierce noticed a Blackberry, nearly hidden by a trashcan, plugged into an outlet and lying on the floor in back of Hebert’s desk. He picked it up and switched it on.

The last interesting email Hebert received arrived the day before he died. “Thanks for the invitation – I do plan on attending” went to a 305 number. Pierce gently wiped the phone against his shirt and put it back where he found it.

The investigator saw another door that he presumed was a closet. A stack of boxes blocked it. He moved them aside and entered. The door opened onto a short dark hallway that ended in a nearly empty room. Sunlight passed through a small dirty window onto a floor covered with dust fully an inch thick. In the dust, Pierce saw footprints that led to a small black safe in the corner. The lock to the safe was broken, and the door hung bent and ajar. He walked over and pulled it open.

A pile of faded envelopes lay in the safe, a torn one off to the side of the others. When he touched it, a fine white powder fell into small pile. Pierce looked closely at it. A sweet, strong smell rose up. Suddenly, dizziness overtook him. He started to fall and staggered to brace himself against the wall, then lurched through the office, down the hallway and outside into open air. Pierce sat on a concrete bench and put his head between his legs. After a few deep breaths, the symptoms passed. He took out his phone and called the Boca Raton Police Department.

A half-hour later, a blue Chevy Suburban pulled into the parking lot, trailed by a Boca Raton police cruiser. Two men in dark shades and black pinstripe suits stepped out.

“Kevin Pierce?” the taller of them asked.


“I’m Ed Jones,” he said, not even making an effort to conceal that he was giving a false name. “Slowly and carefully, I need you to show me what you found.”

The two men took hazmat kits out of the Suburban and followed Pierce, stopping several feet back from the door in Hebert’s office. Pierce pointed out the phone.

“You didn’t see this?” Jones asked his subordinate, irritation in the tone.

“I, uh . . .” he stammered.

Jones gave an exasperated exhale. “You can wait outside,” he said to Pierce.

The Boca cops stood, arms folded, watching Pierce when he emerged.

Fifteen minutes later, the agents came out, carrying several sealed bags. Jones walked directly to Pierce.

“How long were you in the room?” Jones asked.

“Only a minute. I started to feel dizzy so I left.”

“I need you to stand still for a moment,” he said. He looked closely at Pierce’s pupils then took his pulse. He nodded to himself. “Listen, I’m not going to screw around here. You know this guy’s background?”

“I remember reading the stories in the papers a few years ago.”

“Well, he was mixed up with some pretty scummy people then.” Jones held up the Blackberry. “And maybe now, too, it seems.”

He paused, looked down at the ground for a moment then stared at Pierce forcefully.
“I think you’re smart enough to keep your mouth shut. I want to confirm that you found nothing in this room – correct?” he said.

Pierce looked back at the agent. “OK – I agree. Nothing was in there,” he said finally. “But what will the official report say?”

“Sure as hell looked like suicide to me,” Jones said.

And that would be the official version, the one that counted, Pierce thought, and all the accused and accusers would stand down accordingly. He walked to his car and drove away slowly from the building. As Pierce departed, he noticed that some adoring students had left a small shrine in Hebert’s parking spot. Decaying flowers, rain-blurred notes, a few stuffed animals. In the middle of everything, someone had placed a tall glassed candle but, due to continued light winds, it had apparently been unable to light.

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