Josh Lanyon Main Title

Fair Game

An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon

His cell phone was vibrating.

From where he stood at the lectern, Elliot could see it jittering on the top of the desk. He ignored it. The days when a phone call might signal the need to leap into action -- and danger -- were long behind him. Seventeen months behind him.

“... rats overran the compound, and the stench of the brimming privies polluted the air. Starving prisoners ate candles, bootlaces, vermin.”

The usual ripple of disgust ran through the rows of students in the Bryant Hall lecture room. A few busy hands made notes, but honest to God. Was the notion that life in a prison camp would be living hell really a point these kids couldn’t remember if it wasn’t jotted down in a notebook?

“By the time the Civil War has over, over four hundred thousand soldiers were POWs -- that number, you’ll be surprised to hear, nearly evenly divided between Union and Confederate troops.”

On cue, the little blonde in the front line of chairs raised her brows in surprise and shifted in her chair to better display her long, slim legs.

What was her name again? Mrachek, Leslie. That was it.

Catching his gaze, Mrachek smiled demurely. Elliot bit back a sardonic grin. Barking up the wrong tree there, Mrachek, Leslie. If Elliot was inclined to get involved with a student -- and he was not -- it would more likely be the broad-shouldered redhead sitting next to her.  Sandusky, John.

Sandusky was chewing the top of his pen, staring into space.

Elliot sighed inwardly and continued, “The treatment was no better for officers. More than three hundred of the nine thousand men held at Johnson Island in western Lake Erie, died -- primarily of starvation and disease.”

His phone was buzzing again.

Funny, how you just knew when it was trouble. Granted, Elliot didn’t get a large number of calls these days. Not like when he’d been a hot shot Special Agent with the FBI. His physical therapist, his teaching assistant, his father…that was pretty much it. Maybe that explained why he was having trouble tuning out that ghostly knocking on the desktop. So much for his vaunted power of concentration. Tucker would have -- no.

No, he wasn’t about to let his thoughts stray in that direction.

Elliot glanced at the clock in the back of the room. Four minutes to the hour. Close enough.

“And that just about does it for today, boys and girls,” he announced.

A few faces blinked at him as though he’d woken them from a dream -- which he probably had. Others glanced around at the clock or at wristwatches while papers and books were shuffled and the students began filing out of History 353.

Elliot turned away from the lectern.

“Professor Mills?”

Mrachek, Leslie accompanied by a bored-looking Sandusky, John was smiling up at him.

Elliot raised his brows in inquiry. His expression must not have been encouraging because her smile faltered.

“Leslie, is it?” he asked more cordially.

“Yeah. Leslie Mrachek. I’m also in your Film and History: The American West course.” She was turning the full battery of white teeth, blue eyes, and adorably freckled nose his way. Elliot controlled his impatience.  Not her fault if his knee was beginning to ache and he was suddenly, keenly feeling the frustration of his new sedate, confined life in academia.

 “Oh, yes?”

Her escort, Sandusky, was checking the messages on his cell. Leslie said, “I was wondering if I -- if you would consider looking at my essay on the films of John Ford before I officially turned it in?”

Was that done? Though he’d earned his doctorate before joining the Bureau, Elliot had done very little teaching. All too often he felt like he was feeling his way through the dark; far less savvy than some of his younger, fresh-out-of-college peers.

“Of course.” If that wasn’t kosher, he’d know better the next time.

“Are your office hours still from nine to eleven on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and two to four on Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

 “Uh, right.”

She gave him that blazing smile again. “Sweet! Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Elliot nodded politely, bemusedly. Leslie departed with the stoic Sandusky in tow. Elliot retrieved his phone and checked messages.

His father’s number flashed up.

The letdown caught him off guard. What -- who -- had he been expecting? Automatically, he gathered his tan Brooks Brothers raincoat and briefcase. Speaking of office hours, he was due in his lair now.

He punched in the phone numbers as he walked. His office was located in Hanby Hall on the other side of the quad near the arboretum. The rain had stopped. The campus -- tidy lawns, old-fashioned brick buildings, towering white birch and beech trees -- sparkled in the fleeting sunlight as though newly washed.

“Hey, Professor!” A student on a bike winged past him like a giant bird.

Elliot flinched. At least he managed not to reach for a shoulder holster that wasn’t there, so progress was being made.

The phone ringing at the other end picked up.

“Hel-lo.” His dad sounded like always. Relaxed, cheerful. Clearly it was no family emergency that had him ringing Elliot during class hours. Of course, they were a two-man family, so if there had been a genuine emergency Roland Mills would probably not be the one placing the call.

“Hey, Dad. You rang?”

“I did. How are you, son? Are we still having on dinner on Thursday?”

They had dinner every Thursday. They’d been having dinner once a week since Elliot had left the Bureau and returned to teaching at Puget Sound University.

“Sure.” An uneasy thought occurred. “Why?”

“You remember Tom and Pauline Baker?”

“Vaguely.” He skirted two girls in boots and mufflers, texting madly as they walked and mumbled to each other.

“Their boy Terry is a student at PSU. At least he was up until two weeks ago.”

“What happened two weeks ago?”

“He disappeared.”

“Boys do sometimes.”

“Not this boy. Terry was a very serious kid. Good grades. No trouble.”

Elliot said dryly, “Sounds like he was due for some time off.”

“Be that as it may, Tom and Pauline don’t believe he dropped out of sight voluntarily.”

Elliot had reached the long narrow steps leading up to bullet-shaped oak door of Hanby Hall. As always when faced with stairs he felt a twinge of anxiety. The pain after his knee replacement had been excruciating -- beyond anything he’d imagined or previously experienced -- but he was recovering well now and stairs rarely gave him trouble.

He went up them steadily, went inside the building already quieting down as the next session of classes began.

Keeping his voice down as he walked past closed classroom doors, he said, “If that’s the case, and they have some grounds for believing foul play, they should go to police.”

“They’ve been to the police. They’ve been to the FBI.”

“I haven’t heard a word about this.”

“Charlotte Oppenheimer asked them to keep it quiet for now.”

Oppenheimer was the current president of PSU. She had a vested interest in keeping rumors of possible malfeasance to a whisper.

“What is it you want me to do?” Reaching his office, Elliot put his briefcase down and found his keys listening to the uncharacteristic silence on the other end of the line.

“I’d like you to talk to the Bakers.”

Not what he was expecting. “How is that supposed to help anyone?” Elliot had had his share of talking to grieving parents. If there was a bright side to losing a job you loved, it was the part about not having to deal with terrified or distraught loved ones.

“I just thought you could talk to them. Reassure them.”

Stepping inside his office, Elliot closed the door, and said quietly, “There may not be cause for reassurance.”

“I know. But you’ve got experience in this kind of thing. I thought you might be able to use that experience to help them navigate these waters.”

Here was irony. “You hated every moment I worked for the Bureau. All I ever heard was how I was wasting my life in the pay of a fascist organization working for a corrupt regime.”

“And so you were.” The years had only slightly mellowed Roland Mills’s militant and anarchist tendencies. Back in the day, he’d been right out there with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin -- flowers in his hair and screaming for revolution -- before he’d settled down to relatively staid life as the most liberal professor on the campus of one of the most liberal of the liberal art colleges on the West Coast. Elliot was his only child, the off-spring of Roland’s third and final marriage. “So you were,” Roland repeated. “And squandering all the gifts and talents the universe bestowed on you. But here’s a chance to put those oppressor-of-the-people skills of yours to good use. These are friends and they need help.”

“Jesus, Dad.” Elliot stared out the window, but he wasn’t really seeing the pale, glistening tree trunks or the silver pink rhododendrons in this part of the arboretum. The museum of trees. He was seeing another rainy afternoon -- a park in Portland, Oregon. That day had ended in bullets and puddles streaked with blood.

Hell. Maybe it was the weather. Washington’s dark, wet winters got to him sometimes.

Elliot shook off the shadowy feeling of premonition. “All right. What’s the number?”

Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.