Safely away from the chaos of Manhattan, St. Thomas, a small college on the banks of the Hudson River in the Bronx, is supposed to be tranquil, bucolic, and serene. Unfortunately, English professor Alison Bergeron has found it to be anything but. Recently divorced from a fellow professor and even more recently without a car---it was stolen---she has been hoofing it to school. One Friday evening, two NYPD homicide detectives drop by her office. The good news is that they found her beat-up Volvo; the bad news is that the body of one of the students in her Shakespeare seminar was in the trunk. Not only are Alison's chances of getting the car back bleak, but suddenly she's the primary suspect on a list that includes, among others, the murdered student's drug-dealing boyfriend, Vince, and the girl's father's business rivals (he's head of an old Italian family . . .). Accused of a crime that she didn't commit, Alison enlists her best friend, Max's, emotional support and services as an amateur sleuth. Their fumbling efforts to clear Alison's name could land her in even hotter water with Detective Bobby Crawford, the handsome investigating officer (and former altar boy)---not to mention the nuns at St. Thomas. . . . Maggie Barbieri's charming professor and down-to-earth detective make an unlikely but lovable team in her delightful debut mystery.
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November 01, 2007
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Excerpt from Murder 101 by Maggie Barbieri
"Your ass looks great in that dress."
Max is my best friend and that's her idea of a compliment. When she showed up at my office precisely at six, I was bent over the lowest drawer of my filing cabinet putting some exam booklets away. We air kissed because, as usual, she had three layers of Russian Red lipstick painted on, and I didn't have turpentine handy to remove her lip prints from my cheek. "Are you wearing a girdle?" She threw her briefcase onto one of my guest chairs and draped herself across the other one, throwing one leg over the arm of the chair. Max was in a gorgeous black dress and black shoes with red soles. She noticed me looking at them. "Christian Louboutin," she said. As if I knew what that meant.
I stood up and slammed my file cabinet shut and turned to face her. I wasn't sure if I should be flattered or insulted. "I'm not wearing a girdle." I paused a moment, not capable of lying. "Just control-top panty hose." I sat down behind my desk to tidy up before we headed off to the annual fund-raiser kickoff for the college where I teach and from which Max and I graduated. There was also to be a ceremony honoring Max--a rich alumna and proud donor of a technology classroom. Our school has an unwritten motto: "Keep your alumnae close and your rich alumnae closer."
I got a look at myself in the reflection of the windows next to my desk. I had worn my "good" dress--a sleeveless black sheath on which I had spent too much money five years earlier and felt compelled to wear everywhere in order just to get my money's worth--it's like the fashion version of amortization. I also had on nice black pumps, but I still didn't look like Max. I looked pretty good, for me. She's petite with long legs and a great body that has never been introduced to a piece of exercise equipment. She is a faithful practitioner of yoga, but I'm not exactly sure she practices it for the health benefits. She talks an awful lot about her yogi Brandon.
Max handed me a lipstick. "Just put a little bit on so you don't look quite so cadaverous." I gave her a look. "What?" she asked, indignant; comparing me to a cadaver, in her world, signaled concern. "These classrooms are leeching the life out of you."
She walked over to the tall windows at the end of my office. There is a small patch of grass behind the building, as well as a long flight of stairs that goes past the auditorium and into the building where I have my office and teach all of my classes, one of the three classroom buildings on campus. She perched on the bench that served as a covering for the radiator and crossed her legs. A group of students and a couple of professors, all male, were playing touch football on the little patch of grass behind the building.
"Is your week going any better?" she asked, referring to the fact that my car had been stolen and my divorce had become final all in the last five days. She tapped her foot to some unheard beat, admiring the bunch of twentysomethings and their bare chests.
"Who's the hunk in the striped shorts?" she said, leaning in close to the window before I could answer.
I followed her gaze. "Frank Johnson, head of the Business Department," I said, and sprayed on some perfume.
I looked at her. "Gay." I thought the vertically striped linen shorts and the Choose Life! tank top were a dead giveaway.
She leaned her face against the cool glass. "So? Your week?"
"I'm divorced, without a car, and walking to and from the train station. And everywhere I turn, I see my ex-husband with his newly bald head, goatee, and BMW. That pretty much sums up my week."
"Do you want me to have him killed?" she asked, losing interest in the pansexual football game and giving me her full attention. Seeing Ray, my ex, in a coffin surrounded by flowers was a fantasy I'm sure she had enjoyed for many years.
"Who are we having killed?" a male voice asked from my doorway. I turned around and saw that the voice belonged to one of a duo of men--both large, wearing guns, and holding shiny gold badges.
At five-foot-ten, I'm not used to being one of the smallest people in the room; rather, I usually tower over the little nuns and not fully developed coeds I encounter every day. These two were well into the six-foot-three or -four range, and one of them looked like he hadn't had a good day in weeks. Or a decent night's sleep. The more pleasant-looking of the two was dressed in a brown tweed jacket, khaki pants, a white shirt, and a blue-and-gold-striped tie. He held out one hand to shake and the other to show a gold badge. Not sure what to do, I took both and was then in the uncomfortable position of holding both of his hands at the same time. I dropped the one that didn't hold the badge.
"Alison Bergeron?" he asked, and stepped into my office. Designed to hold me, my stuff, and maybe one other person, it was getting tight.
I clutched the badge, not looking at it. "Yes."
"Detective Crawford, NYPD. This is Detective Wyatt." He held his hand out to retrieve his badge.
The cranky-looking one grunted some kind of greeting. He was wearing a blue suit, and, when he sat down, I could see that he had on a beautifully tailored shirt with French cuffs that had his initials embroidered on them. He had light brown skin and very short black hair. He looked to be in his early forties and seemed to be the senior of the two officers. He took eyeglasses out of his pocket and put them on as he turned in his chair and perused the books on my bookshelf.
Max seemed to be in a trance so I introduced her. "This is my friend, Maxine Rayfield. We're on our way to an alumnae dinner," I babbled. "Max is being honored by the school."
"We won't take too much of your time. Can we sit down?" Crawford asked. He looked pointedly at Max and then back at me.
I motioned to the empty chair across from my desk, which fronted the bookcase that Detective Wyatt was examining. "Oh, she can stay. Max, sit down."
She continued to stare at Wyatt. He didn't seem to register that there was anyone else in the room. She turned and looked at me, and mouthed, "Married?" But I ignored her.
After several moments of silence while he looked at the books, Wyatt asked, "Joyce scholar?"
I was surprised. "Yes."
He shook his head. "I never got him."
"A lot of people say that. I did my dissertation on him." I immediately regretted sounding like Patty McSmartypants, but it was out there and couldn't be taken back. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Max shoot me a look.
He raised his eyebrows in what was an attempt at conveying respect or disgust at my arrogance, I couldn't tell which. I asked Detective Crawford if they had found my car.
"I actually have a couple of questions about that," he said, pulling out a leather-covered notebook and a pen. He leaned forward in the chair. "When was the car taken, as far as you can ascertain?"
"I already had this conversation with a couple of police officers from the Fiftieth Precinct," I said, trying to remain polite. According to my watch, Max and I had approximately seven minutes before we had to be at the cocktail reception before the dinner. The chair of my department, Sister Mary McLaughlin, was a stickler for punctuality, and I had lost some ground with her because of my divorce. I guess I now had "loose woman" written all over me. Yes, it's the twenty-first century. Except when you work for a nun.
He smiled. "I know. Detective Wyatt and I just pulled the case, and we thought we'd go over it again."
Max came to life. "Do they always send detectives to look for stolen cars?" With the flush in her cheeks extending all the way to her red-bottomed shoes, I wasn't sure she was going to make it through the evening. I was also quite sure that if they did send detectives wearing big guns and no wedding rings to look for stolen cars, her new Jaguar would be missing by morning.
He shifted slightly. "Well, not usually." He looked at Detective Wyatt, who took a British literature anthology off my shelf and began thumbing through it. "So, when did you realize it was missing?"
"I left my office at five-thirty on Monday, and it was gone. I usually park it in the lot right at the top of those stairs," I said, pointing out my window. A group of students ran down the stairs, stopping briefly to look at the touch football game in the yard. "I came back to my office and called the campus police who, I guess, called the real police."
Wyatt let out a laugh that sounded like a car backfiring. Crawford looked at him, and he recovered his stony composure, reading the table of contents of the anthology with an intensity it didn't deserve.
"What time was that?"
"What?" I asked, not sure what event he was asking about.
"When the police showed up?"
"Are you guys IAB?" Max asked, getting more excited by the moment. As the head of programming for a cable station, she watches a lot of television. Since her station had started showing repeats of NYPD Blue, I guess she thought she had the cop lingo down.
Crawford looked at her. "IAB?"
"Yeah, Internal Affairs."
"No," he said, and looked down at his notebook.
"It was by six, the latest." I pulled out my appointment book to see if I had written anything else down about whom I saw and when.
He jotted a note in his book and let out a little breath that was more of a time killer than an actual sigh. But, the look on his face told me that there was more to this than my car being gone. My stomach did a little flip.
"And where were you between four o'clock and five-thirty on Monday?"
I turned a couple of pages back in my planner and saw that that section was blank. I thought for a few moments. "I was down at the river planning for a class." I had had a class to teach on the Hudson River poets. I thought the river would provide inspiration. It hadn't. I reused a lecture I had given the year before that was a big dud and that had almost put me to sleep, never mind my students.
"Were you with anyone?" he asked as he wrote.
"No," I said, thinking that that might not be a good thing for me.
"Did anyone see you leave your office?" Wyatt asked.
I thought again. "I can't remember."
Crawford smiled again. "Try."
I felt a bead of sweat running down the indentation of my spine, even though my office was at a comfortable temperature. "I'll have to think about that. I can't think right now."
"Do you know a . . ." He flipped through his notebook, looking for information.
Wyatt stepped in. "Katherine Miceli."
"Yes," I said, and felt the blood drain from my face.
"How?" Wyatt asked, as Detective Crawford continued flipping through his notebook.
"She's in my Shakespeare class."
Wyatt looked at me. "When was the last time you saw her?"
I knew my schedule by heart because it was pretty much the same every semester. "I think it was Monday afternoon. The class meets on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday."
"Did you see her the rest of the week?" Crawford asked.
I reached into my top drawer and took out my grade book. I saw that I had marked her absent for Wednesday and Friday. I was teaching five classes this semester, including the Shakespeare class that was way out of my league. I was having trouble keeping all of it straight. "No, she was absent on Wednesday and today." My heart was pounding.
Wyatt looked perturbed. "Weren't you concerned when she didn't show up for class?"
"This is college, Detective. We don't get too concerned when students don't show up for class. We just figure they're cutting," I explained. "She also owed me a paper on Wednesday that I know she was having trouble with. I figured she cut class to avoid handing it in."
"I bet you never cut class," he said.
I ignored him and tried not to shift around in my seat to show my discomfort. "What's going on?"
Wyatt continued looking at the anthology. "Ms. Miceli is no longer with us."
"Did she transfer?" I asked. Crawford looked at me like I must be joking, but I was dead serious.
Wyatt looked up. "Would we be here if she had transferred?" He gave me an impatient look; I guess he had a point. "She's dead."
I took in a gulp of air. "How did she die?"
"She was murdered," he said. He slammed the book shut and replaced it on the shelf. Crawford pulled at his tie; the good-cop/bad-cop routine was one with which he was obviously familiar, but did not enjoy.
I heard a little squeak emanate from Max as she slid off the radiator cover. "You know what?" she asked, as she picked up her briefcase. "I think I'm going to wait outside." She slung her briefcase over her shoulder and shimmied through the three-inch space that existed between the detectives' knees and my desk, her back to them. I saw Crawford look away discreetly and move his knees to the side, while Wyatt remained fixated on her shaking ass. She faced me as she moved by them and contorted her face to convey her horror to me.
I waited until she left the room and closed the door before asking, "How?" My heart did that thing where it beats a few hundred times and then skips a beat. I took a deep breath.
"Don't know," Wyatt said. "Just found her. We're waiting for the coroner's report."
"Who found her?"
Wyatt was growing impatient with my questions. "What difference does it make?"
"What does this have to do with my car?"
Crawford, good cop--or at least, polite cop--reached into his pocket and took out a stack of photos. He held one up to my face. "Is this your car?" he asked.
I looked at the photo, and it was indeed my car. In the photo, it was dripping wet and covered in mud but, undeniably, my car. I nodded.
He put that photo on the bottom of the pile and held up another photo. I stood up behind my desk to get a better look. When I saw what I was looking at--the open trunk complete with bloodied body--a loud buzzing began in my ears.
I remember thinking about the soles of Max's shoes as I hit the floor.