Authors: Jane Haddam
Quoth the Raven
Open Road Integrated Media
This book is for
WILLIAM NICHOLAS DE ANDREA
who gave me the title.
Among other things.
Tuesday, October 29
Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore—
—E. A. Poe
HE INVITATION TO TEACH
philosophy for one semester at Independence College came to Father Tibor Kasparian on the fifth of July. It came out of nowhere, with no advance warning. It descended into nowhere just as quickly, buried in that pile of papers and magazines Tibor thought of as his “things to do that will never get done.” Most of the things in that pile were simple nuisances: copies of supermarket tabloids with stories about kidnappings by aliens in them, collected for a paper Tibor half intended to write on popular delusions; letters from women’s groups in Armenian parishes across the country, asking him to speak on “living out your Christian faith in a Communist country.” The alien kidnappings had begun to depress him. Too many people believed in them because they wanted to believe in them, because they found an irrational universe more appealing than the one the good God had actually made. The women’s groups were simply impossible. Tibor had nothing against talking about what had happened to him—he did it all the time, with his best American friend, Gregor Demarkian—but he didn’t know how to talk about it without telling the truth, and the truth had a lot of blood in it. He couldn’t imagine delivering a sermon on the virtues of genital torture across a sea of melting ice cream, the
pièce de résistance
to a lunch of lemon veal.
The problem with the invitation to teach was somewhat more complicated. In a way, it was a miracle of biblical proportions, an affirmative answer to an impossible prayer. Teaching philosophy was what Tibor Kasparian had once set out to do, before he’d found both Christ and tyranny, before he’d begun to understand what the world was really like. Teaching philosophy was even what he’d been trained for, in the back rooms and root cellars of Yekevan, during that fragmented and dangerous process that substituted for the seminary in the worst days of Soviet rule. Unfortunately, teaching philosophy was also what had first gotten him into so much trouble.
He took the letter out of the mailbox, opened it on the spot, and read it. Then he went upstairs and put it on the pile. Then he came downstairs again and told himself the thing was safely in his study. He didn’t have to answer it. He didn’t have to see it again. He didn’t have to tell anyone it had ever come. Only he knew—and his Anna, who was with God.
Two weeks later, in the middle of an argument about the Articles of Confederation, Tibor Kasparian sent Gregor Demarkian up to the study to find a book. The book was in a stack of books on a shelf behind the desk that held the pile. The letter from Independence College was still on the top of that pile, in spite of the fact that the pile had been added to a dozen times since the letter had come. Gregor Demarkian was by nature and profession a snoop.
Later, Tibor decided he had done it all on purpose. He had wanted to be saved from his fear. Most of all, he had wanted to be relieved of his guilt—the guilt that told him he should not accept this offer, because he and Anna had once plotted to come to America to find a place that would let him teach, because Anna had died in blood before they’d ever gotten started.
Gregor Demarkian came downstairs without the book, but with the letter, waving it in the air as if it were wet.
“You and I,” he told Tibor, “are going to have to talk.”
OW IT WAS THE
twenty-ninth of October, just days before Halloween, and Tibor was sitting in the high-ceilinged, long-windowed office he had been assigned in Liberty Hall, trying to work out the particulars of a lecture he was supposed to give on the theological foundations of
The Federalist Papers
and their relationship to the Greek Schism. As it turned out, he had not been hired to teach philosophy in the ordinary sense, but to take part in something called an “interdisciplinary program.” Like all the rest of the faculty in Liberty Hall—Donegal Steele, Alice Elkinson, Katherine Branch, Kenneth Crockett—he worked exclusively with students “pursuing a major” called The American Idea. He even liked it. American university jargon drove him crazy. American university structure bewildered him completely. Tibor didn’t think he’d ever get used to “majors” and “core courses” and “remedial education.” Still, this place, Independence College, was a good one. In the two months he had been here, he had been almost perfectly happy.
Except for one thing.
His desk was pushed up against one of the windows looking out of the back of the building, across Minuteman Field to the tall gray upthrust of mottled granite called King George’s Scaffold. Back in the fall of 1776, the students at this college had decided to do two things to show their solidarity with the signers of the Declaration of Independence. First they had forced the faculty to change the college’s name from Queen Anne’s to Independence. (From what Tibor could figure out, force had not been strictly necessary.) Then they had burned the mad old king himself in effigy, against that outcrop of rock. They had gone on burning him every year since, on bonfires that got higher and higher, in effigies that got more and more wild. The effigy Tibor could see—a straw man with clothes from the Drama Department, a head made from a jack-o’-lantern, and a gold foil crown—sat on a gold-painted plywood throne that had been built on stilts so tall the throne’s seat was two-thirds of the way up the Scaffold. Around those stilts, for the past month, students had been piling kindling and firewood. Three days ago, the pile had reached the effigy’s feet. Today, it reached its knees. By full dark on Halloween—when one of the students would douse the pile with kerosene and throw a match on it, making the whole thing go up like an exploding oil well—the straw man would probably have firewood in his lap.
Tibor looked down at his papers again, then up and out the window again, and sighed. His door was open—he liked visitors—but it was four o’clock in the afternoon. There was nobody in the building but old Miss Maryanne Veer in the office, and Miss Veer wasn’t likely to leave her post beside the chairman’s desk just to have a talk with him. Tibor wondered if she would leave it once there was a chairman at the desk. The old chairman had been diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of cancer just before the start of the semester, and taken himself off to Houston. The program had been deadlocked over the choice of a new chairman ever since—but that was in the realm of what Tibor thought of as “academic politics,” and he preferred to keep out of politics of any kind. He’d had enough of that in his former life.
What he could never get enough of, maybe because it had been nonexistent, even unthinkable, in his early life, were pets. That was what he was really doing here, so very late in the afternoon, when he had a perfectly good suite with a fireplace in Constitution House. Independence College was full of pets, and not just the dogs that faculty kept for company or the cats students kept in their rooms. There was a chipmunk who lived near Minuteman Field and came out to eat from the hands of the students lunching there. There was a family of deer so tame they would allow anyone who offered them salt to pet them. Mostly, there was Lenore, a great black raven who had turned up out of nowhere two years before, checked them all out, and decided to move in. She would fly into open windows—or tap on ones that were closed, asking to be let in—and eat whatever you fed her.
Tibor and Lenore had an understanding, a bargain entered into on the second or third day Tibor had been in this office. Lenore showed up every day except Sunday at four o’clock, and Tibor fed her crumbs from the pastries he brought up from Philadelphia every week after he’d gone down to say the Liturgy in Holy Trinity Church. Lida Arkmanian and Hannah Krekorian—and all the other good ladies on Cavanaugh Street, grandmotherly or otherwise—were thoroughly convinced that, in spite of a full college dining program and a campus snack bar that operated twenty-four hours a day, he had to be starving.
Tibor didn’t wear a watch—every time he tried, the watch in question went missing—but he could see the clock face on Declaration Tower, and it said ten minutes after four. He rapped his fingers against his desk and strained to see as far across the field beyond his window as was possible. For some reason, Lenore wasn’t going to come to him today, and that was worrisome.
What was even more worrisome was the fact that he was sitting here, minute after minute, putting himself in danger of being burst in on by the one faculty member likely to turn up in this building at this time of day: the Great Doctor Donegal Steele. The Great Doctor Donegal Steele was the single fly in the otherwise perfect ointment of Tibor Kasparian’s happiness at Independence College.
Actually, the Great Doctor Donegal Steele was the major fly in the ointment of the happiness of everybody who had anything to do with Liberty Hall, but because that knowledge was part of what Tibor called “academic politics,” he didn’t know it.
He only knew that the Great Doctor Donegal Steele was an unalloyed, dyed-in-the-wool, world-class son of a bitch.
O MISS MARYANNE VEER
, Donegal Steele was not a son of a bitch—Miss Veer didn’t even think in words like that; they were vulgar and immodest, and never once in her sixty-three years had she ever been tempted to either sin—but a threat of apocalyptic importance, the trumpet blast of an approaching Armageddon. Miss Maryanne Veer had come to Independence College at the age of nineteen, fresh from a year at the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school in New York City. Except for the two-week educational walking tours of European cities she took every July with her friend Margaret Lorret, that year represented the only significant time Maryanne had ever spent outside this small Pennsylvania valley. First she had lived with her mother, then she had lived alone, then she had let Margaret join her in a small house she had bought at the edge of the campus with the money from her mother’s life insurance policy. None of these changes seemed to her to be of the least importance. Miss Veer’s life was a seamless garment. Houses came and went, friends and relatives came and went even faster, but The College went on forever. Ever since she had first wandered onto this campus at the age of six, a shy child with a ferocious passion for books being brought up among people who thought all reading was done by radicals and “queers,” Miss Veer had known she was going to find her home in it.
Now she looked down at the piles of pink message slips spread out across her desk and sighed. Back then, it had never occurred to her to do the obvious and apply for admission. Half a dozen students in her own high-school graduating class had been taken on as commuters, all tuition paid by the Crockett Memorial Valley Scholarship Fund. Maybe it was the fact that those students had all been from the other side of town, where houses were neat and conscientiously painted and fathers were present and meticulously sober, that had made her believe, unconsciously, that she was not qualified to be among them. Maybe it was just that, in that time and in that place, “secretary” was the job most women were taught to aspire to. Either that, or “teacher.” Miss Maryanne Veer had never suffered from the delusion that she had the talent to be a teacher.