May I Have Your Attention, Please

Your Attention PleaseSherilyn Darnell looked out at the large group of faculty members sitting in front of her. She knew that the majority of them didn’t want to be there. If she had her guess, half of them were playing games on their telephones, checking email or texting each other. There were some sycophants watching her eagerly, but she wasn’t naïve enough to think they really cared what she had to say. Well, too bad. It was in their contract to be there for this annual meeting. There was no way she was going to embarrass herself in front of the university president. She needed a packed house to prove that she could take charge and be a leader.

‘And now, Provost Sherilyn Darnell will share a few remarks.’ That was Associate Provost Marlene Jamison, and it was Sherilyn’s cue to go up to the podium. Here it goes, she thought. Oh, well, in just a while this would all be over and she could relax with a cup of tea.

Marlene Jamison sat down after her introduction and reminded herself to keep wearing that expression of polite attention. No need to give herself away. As Sherilyn started her presentation, Marlene mentally put the final touches to her plan. One cup of tea was all it was going to take. That thought made Marlene absently pat the pocket of her black dress pants. Yes, she’d brought the weed killer – more than enough to do the job. It would be ridiculously easy to slip it into Sherilyn’s tea. Their offices were in the same suite, and with all of the coming and going in that part of the building, nobody would notice anything.

As Sherilyn paused to take a sip of water, Marlene looked out at the audience. Not so very long ago, she’d been one of them. She’d originally been hired to fill out the Department of History, but she’d kissed up to the right people and been promoted to Chair. To be fair, she’d also done some actual work, but it wasn’t about the work you did. It was about who liked you. And Marlene had made sure that the right people liked her. It hadn’t been easy, but she was just one step away now – no, make that one cup of tea away – from taking over as Provost. And after that? Well, President Graham couldn’t last forever. Marlene knew several people on the Board of Trustees who would support her as the next president.

‘…can count on all of you to support our university goals for the year,’ Sherilyn was saying. If Marlene was right, she had about ten more minutes of talking to go. Then the assembly would come to a close. About time, too. Everyone was more than restless. Marlene glanced out again at the faculty faces. There was that idiot Jonah Bradford. God knew how he’d gotten to be named Chair of the Department of Psychology. It wasn’t as though he’d served his time. He’d only been in the department for three years before he’d gotten promoted. Marlene had heard from reliable sources that he was angling for her job. She’d even seen him at official parties trying to corner Sherilyn and the president, too. No chance of him getting to the university-level administration, though.  He’d have to get through her first, and no-one was better than she was at playing the game.

Marlene’s thoughts were jerked back to the present when she heard the thud and saw Sherilyn fall to the floor. There was controlled chaos as the paramedics were called. When they arrived, everyone moved aside to let them do their jobs. The last anyone saw of Sherilyn Darnell was her body being whisked away on a gurney.

Still in a daze, Marlene automatically moved off the dais and took a seat with the audience. She’d had no idea that Sherilyn was ill. This would change everything. In a way, Marlene was relieved. She wouldn’t have to use the weed killer that was still in her pants pocket. The weed killer! She’d better get rid of it before anyone asked any questions. That would have to wait, though. The president had asked everyone to stay until the police arrived to ask questions.

As she waited, Marlene thought about it. She hadn’t really been watching Sherilyn – not closely. But she hadn’t seemed ill. In fact, just before they started the presentation, Sherilyn had mentioned that she had some kind of dinner plans that night. She’d seemed absolutely fine then. It could be a heart attack or something. Either way, Marlene was safe, and that was what was most important. Shaken up, but safe.

The police soon arrived, and the uniformed officers asked everyone a few perfunctory questions. Marlene was glad that she could truthfully say she’d seen nothing and didn’t know what had happened. She found a trash bin near the front of the building and tossed the weed killer on her way back to her office.

Three days later, Marlene was sitting at her desk. They’d told her she’d be named Interim Provost for the time being. But she knew that meant that if she kept her nose clean, she’d probably slip into the permanent role. She smiled to herself a little as she turned on her computer. A knock on the opened door of her office made her look up. There were two men there – men she didn’t know. She stood up and walked towards them.
‘May I help you?’
‘Dr. Jamison?’
‘Yes?’
‘I’m Detective Miller and this is Detective Oglevie. Can we have a few minutes?’
‘Of course.’ Had her face paled? She hoped not. There was nothing to worry about. Breathe normally. ‘Come in and sit down,’ she managed.

The two detectives sat in seats across from her. ‘We’re here about Dr. Darnell’s death.’
‘It’s just been horrible,’ Marlene sad. ‘Was it a heart attack?’
‘No, Ma’am. That’s why we’re here. Dr. Darnell seems to have been poisoned.’
‘Poisoned!’
‘Yes, Ma’am. And we need to ask you a few questions.’
‘Of course.’  She was innocent. No harm in talking to them. It wasn’t as though she’d carried out her plan.
One of the detectives looked down at some notes. ‘Can you tell us about the day Dr. Darnell died?’
That was easy enough. Marlene explained why everyone had been gathered and what she’d seen.
Another look at the notes. ‘We understand you were seen pulling something out of your pocket shortly after Dr. Darnell was taken to the hospital. Is that right?’
‘My pocket? Honestly, I don’t remember. It could have been a comb or tissue or anything.’
‘We understand it was a plastic-wrapped packet. Like this one.’ With that, the detective reached into his own pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag. Zipped inside was another plastic bag. The one Marlene had carefully put the weed killer in the morning of Sherilyn’s death.
She rubbed her lips together, then licked them. ‘I – I – Why would I have a bag like that?’
‘That’s what we’re wondering, Ma’am. This bag has weed killer in it. The same stuff that killed Dr. Darnell.’
‘But I didn’t do it! Why would I – I didn’t do it!’
‘We’d like you to come with us, please.’

The three of them walked down the hall, Marlene between the two detectives. They went down two floors, and passed Jonah Bradford’s office as they headed towards the building’s exit. As they walked by, Jonah looked up from his desk. Marlene could have sworn he winked at her.

After they left, Jonah smiled to himself. It had been so damned easy. Nobody ever paid attention at those speeches. All it took was a second or two to put the poison in the provost’s water glass. No-one saw anything. But he paid attention. He’d seen Marlene Jamison pull that bag out of her pocket and ditch it in a trash can. Another second was all he needed to get it and turn it in to the cops. He’d move up to the inner circle in no time. ‘Checkmate’ he murmured to himself as he got back to work.

40 Comments

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40 responses to “May I Have Your Attention, Please

  1. I always enjoy your stories, Margot. Are all faculty that evil, or ambitious?

  2. Excellent, Margot. And in answer to Tracy’s question, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised – about the ambition anyway. I have found crime-writers a much kindlier and more supportive bunch.

    • Thanks, Christine 🙂 And actually, I wouldn’t be shocked, myself. You make another, really well-taken point, too: crime writers are delightful people, and quite supportive. Despite all that we know about death, weapons, twisted psychology, murder methods… 😉

  3. Very clever – I do like this type of setting for the story too, it works so well!

  4. Patti Abbott

    Murder in academia where the stakes are so low according to Phil.

    • Sometimes they really are low, Patti. Phil’s right about that. Sometimes they’re higher. But what I find interesting is how high people think they are. It’s all about perception when it comes to psychology and what motivates people, I think.

  5. Remind me never to cross you…!

  6. What a delight to fall into a good story this morning! Thanks Margot!

  7. Love it! What I especially enjoy about your stories are the motivations behind the murder. Deliciously evil.

  8. Col

    Great story – I hope it’s not a case of art imitating life? No tea for me thanks!

  9. WoW! Just wonderful Margot. Quite made my day.

  10. Margot, I love the twists and the ‘gotcha’ elements of this story. Quite wonderful, thanks for sharing.

  11. Good one, Margot! A real red herring, I’ll say.

  12. Another excellent tale, Margot. I’m not sure which colleges you frequent but after reading this and Publish or Perish, I’m beginning to think they’re dangerous places to work!

    • Thank you, D.S. 🙂 – So glad you enjoyed the story (and thanks for mentioning P/P). And trust me, colleges can be a lot more dangerus than it seems on the surface….

  13. Interesting. Here’s someone who didn’t commit the crime but had the mens rea. Very clever, Margot 🙂

  14. I always love an academic setting and some office politics….

  15. Oh I adore twists in the plot. What a delicious one. So clever. I love it. What a delight and a treat. Thanks so much for sharing this. Ace, Margot. 🙂

  16. Great story, Margot. (there’s always time for tea!). You captured well the baroque machinations of academic politics. And you’re very right: perception and psychology drive academic mystery fiction, pretty much all mystery fiction.

    • Thank you, Bryan 🙂 – Much appreciated. And you’re quite right about perception and psychology. Both are essential to crime fiction (and, if you think about it, to real-life crime).

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