Chapter 1 "The taxi hit her, ran her down. It came out of nowhere and just flattened her. She flew through the air like rag doll, like it was in slow motion. When she finally hit the ground, she bounced once." Marco Paulison rubbed his temples and tried to put the image out of his mind, but it kept replaying like a film stuck in a loop. "It was incredible, in a horrible way. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like the taxi was aiming for her." The scene around him was surreal. The Pittsburgh Police were still cordoning off the intersection of 10th Street and Penn Avenue in front of the Pittsburgh Convention Center where the dead woman’s body came to rest in a position that would be impossible or at least terribly painful if she was alive. Marco tried not to look. Cars backed up in all directions, horns blaring. He noticed another detective talking to Berenda a few yards away. She glanced in his direction, making eye contact just for a second as she talked. A crowd was gathering, swelled by the fact that it was lunch hour on a beautiful July day. Marco looked toward the Convention Center less than a block away and wondered if they would be able to get back this afternoon. "Did you see the taxi?" the detective asked, scribbling on her note pad. "It was yellow, you know? A taxi. What is there to see?" Marco responded, not really looking at his questioner. "License plate, car number, phone number? The kind things you see on a taxi?" "Nope, nothing. It didn’t occur to me to look. I guess it just came up 10th." He looked around and noticed no taxis in sight. Pittsburgh is like that, you can never get a taxi when you need one. "Where is it?" "What?" the detective asked, still scribbling. "The taxi. Where is it?" "Mr.… Paulison is it?" The detective checked her notepad. "Mr. Paulison, I need you to focus. Is there anything else, anything else at all? "No. That’s it." The detective turned away and Marco tried not to look around again, but was compelled. Where’s the taxi? Berenda came over to where he stood and took his hand. "Come on. Let’s get something to eat." They crossed 10th Street at Penn; Marco followed her unthinkingly. "How was yours?" she asked. "Mine? Oh, mine. It was OK, I guess. She just wanted to know what I saw, which is the same thing you saw. How about you?" "The same," Berenda answered, pulling on his arm as she walked down Liberty, away from the Convention Center. They passed the art-house movie joint, the Harris Theater, and Marco stalled long enough to steal a look at the movie flyers, one for an old Italian black and white movie along with one for something new, Robot Stories. Maybe they would take in a movie tonight. Berenda pulled him along and he thought she might be heading for the Pittsburgh Presse Deli for a sandwich, but she kept going right past the twenty-foot statues of jazz musicians in front of the place. "This looks good." She pushed him into Sammy’s Famous Corned Beef on the corner of 9th. You could always count on Berenda to find tasty little place for lunch. It was one of the great things about her; you never had to worry about where you were going to eat. It was a talent, really; something she picked up as a child. Long ago, her mother announced via long distance call one afternoon when Berenda was thirteen that dinner would not be ready that evening, that she and the landscape architect who for the past three months had been working on their back yard would be setting up shop in Palm Springs. Berenda leapt into action and hunted down the nearest take-out place to feed her father and brother. That first night it was Chinese, after that sandwiches, pasta, wings, burritos, whatever she could find. It was also in those first weeks after her mother left that Berenda’s brother developed a stutter, and she forever went from Brenda to Berenda. She stood in line with Marco waiting their turn and when it came up she ordered corned beef for the both of them. Marco marveled as the sandwich maker behind the counter constructed their lunch with ruthless efficiency; rye bread, corned beef, slaw, pickle. They took their sandwiches to a table and Marco moved the mostly empty condiment caddy over to make room as he sat. "I think by law you have to have the corned beef when you come here," Berenda pronounced, easing into her chair. Marco could only see her eyes and hair behind the sandwich that required both hands to hold. He loved the way her dark hair was streaked with blonde in the summer months. "It’s not New York, but what the heck. I like to live on the edge." "Right. Hence, the name: Sammy’s Famous Corned Beef. Do you think it’s really famous?" he asked. "Well look around you," she motioned with a potato chip. "Do you think all these signed pictures got here all by themselves?" "Point taken. Listen, did you see the taxi out there?" Marco asked. "Well, yeah. It almost ran me down, you doofus." "No, after that. When we were talking to the police. Did you see it at all?" Berenda Creswell stopped for a moment and thought seriously. "Now that you mention it, no. So what?" "It just seems odd, that’s all. You’d think the taxi driver would have stopped. I’m sure he did. Didn’t he?" He chewed on his sandwich. "I’m sure he did," she responded. "You just needed some excitement in your life, Marco. See? Go away for something as benign as a Teaching Convention, witness a murder. You can tell our grandkids about it one day." She rested her chin in her hands, propped up by her elbows on the well-worn Formica tabletop, rubbed through in places by years of cleaning. She had a direct way of looking at you, open and expecting. "Jeez. Who’d a thunk it?" Marco let the grandkids comment go. He was pretty sure he’d wind up marrying her, but hadn’t got around to asking yet. He wasn’t in any rush. Thirty-four wasn’t old, not these days. He’d get to it eventually. Besides, he’d rushed into his first marriage, and that was a disaster, ending amicably only because there was no property, no kids, no nothing except for six months of high quality, gymnastic sex. "I’ve never seen anyone dead before. It’s not like TV, is it?" "You sad, sad man. I’m going to revoke your TV rights," Berenda responded. "You’re an English professor. You’re supposed to know the difference between real life and TV. TV isn’t even fantasy; it’s someone else’s idea of fantasy." Marco watched her pour three Equals into her iced tea and stir, all without thinking. "She bounced," Marco steered the subject back to the accident. "She actually bounced. It was gross. Did you see it?" "Yes, and I don’t want to talk about it any more. Let’s just eat and go back to the convention, all right?" Marco knew from experience that she’d talk about it eventually, that she needed some time to digest the whole thing. They were very different that way. He wanted to talk things through right away whereas she needed time. It was part of what made their relationship work. "What’s on your agenda this afternoon?" he asked "’The Importance of Mathematics in the Twenty-First Century’," she recited from memory. "As though I don’t know that. I mean, if you can balance your checkbook, you’re using algebra. Life is littered with uses for math. Cooking, music, driving, racquetball. It stuns me how people refuse to recognize that mathematics is the cornerstone of civilization." Marco disagreed, a grunt through a mouthful of sandwich. "Language," he said again, this time as a recognizable word. "If you can’t communicate effectively, all is lost." This was a running argument, one they had regularly and one that neither had any hope of winning. The Algebra professor and the English professor, ever at odds. When they parted ways for the afternoon at the convention center, Marco was still in replay mode, watching the body fly over and over. Maybe several hours of "Changes in Modern Composition" would erase it. ### Marco got out of bed and threw the heavy curtains back from the windows on the twelfth floor of the Hotel Westin, across 10th street from the Convention Center. He squinted and turned his head away from the glaring sun, hoping to keep the impending headache from taking hold. He shook his head a little, trying to shake away the cobwebs. He wasn’t exactly hung over, but that last Tequila Sunrise was taking its toll this morning. It was one hell of a happy hour that ran late into the evening, a bunch of educators cutting loose, laughing and swapping war stories from the classroom; the tales getting taller, the bad kids getting badder, the parents getting pushier with each telling, all facilitated by free flowing spirits. "Back, put the curtains back." Berenda’s muffled voice barely made out from under the covers on the bed. "I don’t have a seminar until ten." Marco looked at his watch: nine oh five. He smirked to himself and walked back to the foot of the bed, took fistfuls of covers in both hands and pulled up hard, yanking the sheet and the covers into the air where they hovered, defying gravity like a magic carpet for a brief moment. He almost laughed as he looked at Berenda curled up on the hotel mattress with one pillow beneath her head and another clamped tightly on top, failing to keep the morning at bay. The covers gently resettled on her. It was a mean trick, a tease. "Stop it!" she said, reaching up to pull them back over her as they landed. "It’s after nine. You should probably get up." She didn’t move, pretending she didn’t hear him. Marco started to make coffee in the little hotel-sized coffee pot on the counter. It would be lousy, he was sure, a long way from the French Roast he usually made at home but right now anything was better than nothing. He stepped into the bathroom to run the water before opening the room door to retrieve the complimentary paper from the hallway. As he turned around, Marco started to recite the headlines aloud, as was his habit. "A drug deal went bad, two people shot. President Defends War on Terror. Bridge Construction to End Soon… "Hey Berenda, look at this." Marco sat down next to the lump on the bed. "Lookit," he rocked her gently, aiming for what he thought was probably her shoulder. "There’s a blurb on the taxi thing from yesterday." Marco read the two sentences at the bottom of the front page and immediately turned to the Regional Section, Page B2. "Her name was Molly Hensle, Dr. Molly Hensle. PhD in Polymer Science. They found the taxi ditched four blocks away, keys still in it, still running. They haven’t found whoever was driving. It was reported stolen earlier in the day. I knew it! I told you, no taxi, remember?" The shower continued to run. Small billows of steam began to venture tentatively into the room. Berenda finally poked her head out from under the covers. "OK." She ran her hand through her hair to pull it back from her face. "Random scientist run down by a taxi. Now you know." Marco continued to read. "Listen to this: she was a big-wig in Fuel Cell Technology, just had a major paper published. Looks like Detroit is headed that way, Fuel Cells I mean." "I’m gonna get in the shower if you’re not," Berenda said as she moved to sit up on the side of the bed. She pulled the big t-shirt that served as a nightgown over her head and walked to the bathroom. Marco stopped reading long enough to appreciate her as she walked away from him. Hers was no stick figure, no sir. She was curvy where women are supposed to be curvy and Marco loved it. He jumped up and grabbed her around the waist from behind just as she reached the billowing portal. "Get away from me," she laughed, still walking. "Get away closer, you mean," he said and kissed her on the neck. "No, just plain old get away." She unwrapped his hands and slipped into the steamy bathroom, quickly closing the door behind her. Marco returned to the paper as the aroma of coffee began to fill the room. Dr. Molly Hensle, PhD, was no longer with us. She had been a research chair at the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems at Carnegie Mellon, specializing in Fuel Cell Technology. Avid cyclist, known for her quirky taste in art and music, no children, survived by her fiancé and her lab mix dog, Bogart. In lieu of flowers, send donations to Carnegie Mellon University. Something nagged at Marco, something he couldn’t put his finger on. Probably nothing, he thought as he reached for the rest of the paper to find the comics. By the time Berenda emerged from the bathroom, Marco had poured his second cup of institutional coffee and was wrestling with the apparently bombproof packaging, hoping to make a second pot. "Did you get it out of your system?" she asked, still drying her hair. "I guess. It just seems senseless, you know. Here was this totally random person sharing sidewalk space with me, then she’s run down in the street right in front of me. It’s the nearness of it all. I mean, the physical nearness, being right there. A little shocking, that’s all." He got up from the edge of the bed. "You want to talk about it yet?" "Maybe tonight when we get home." She would talk about it eventually, but only after it was sorted out to her satisfaction. One of her definitions of "sorted out" was that there was no answer. Occasionally, a subject would be relegated to this category, but not without a lot of thought and usually a fair amount of time. Berenda was known to pick up a conversation a month after they last discussed a subject as though it was five minutes ago. It was part of her make-up, and for all Marco knew, a part of what made her a good math professor. ### Marco Paulison loved to teach. He loved it. The idea of exposing young minds to new ideas fed his soul. He’d been at it for nearly a decade now, and still he never tired of it. Although it wasn’t his first teaching job, Marco was a big bag of nerves on the day he arrived at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA, all of thirty years old, hardly older than the students he would be teaching. He thought that might be an asset but, well, he wasn’t really sure. What he did know for sure was that he was hired to replace a legend, an English professor who stayed at W & J for thirty-seven years and, if Marco was to believe the talk in the lounge, a man who stayed too long in his profession, who lost capability and was unable or unwilling to adapt and ultimately held on to his job by insisting on a relevance that did not exist. An imposing figure, to be sure, who left large shoes to fill. Marco’s office was in Davis Hall, apart from the building where he would be teaching, so he stopped by to check it out that autumn morning before classes began. Davis Hall was an old house, converted to office space by means of chainsaw renovation, the rooms chopped up to provide space for offices. His was on the first floor at the back of the building, a bright space with lots of windows that looked out onto the lawn and Dieter-Porter Hall, the physics building. It was almost larger than his first apartment and he wondered what he would do with all the space. In an effort to set a good precedent, he arrived early to class the first day. However, when he walked into his classroom he noticed that he wasn’t the first person there. No, that honor went to Early Wechsler, or Katherine if you looked at the name on her transcript. Early earned her name by taking great pride in being the first person in each of her classes every day. As the rest of class filed in, Marco sat behind his desk feeling the butterflies in his stomach do their best imitation of the Blue Angels until the bell rang, then introduced himself and wrote his name on the blackboard using big loopy handwriting, an intentional stereotype. He was a little disappointed when no one caused any trouble the first time he turned his back. A banner start, all in all. So began his first job in a collegiate setting. He’d started out teaching high school, and as the opportunity arose, he taught all levels of high school lit. The 9th graders, fresh and scrubbed, low men on the high school totem pole, reading the classics; Romeo and Juliet, the Odyssey, Othello. The 10th graders, still relatively free of the angst that takes hold of teenagers, slogging through the hodge-podge of World Literature; Beowulf and the Arabian Nights, Kafka and Conrad. The 11th graders, suffering through American Lit; Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, Thoreau. The seniors, college in sight, slacking and tragically hip, deigning to be taught Brit Lit; Shakespeare, TS Eliot, Chaucer. Marco liked the 10th graders best of all because of their innocence, still hanging on. But he most liked to teach the seniors. He had more leeway with them, and if he was careful, he could introduce some of the more modern works, Henry James, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He could talk about how Godot never showed up. Even so, after just a few years, it was clear to him that college level was where he wanted to be, and so he enrolled in a Master’s program at Pitt and began his search to find a college where he might make a difference. Course work had never been difficult for Marco, and English Literature was no exception. Convincing the staff at W & J that they should hire him was another thing, all together. ### Berenda blew into his life like a hurricane in the fall of his third year teaching at W & J. She came straight out of Penn State and shook his life up. She parked her aging yellow Beetle next to his Dodge Dakota pick up truck in the staff parking lot next to the gym at W & J and stepped out on that fateful August morning, Sade blasting from her speakers until she killed the beast. "Do you like R&B?" Marco asked innocently without knowing it was the perfect thing to say. "You bet your ass," she responded with a friendly smile, turning to see who asked. "And after Sade, it’s Prince, then Luther, then Billie Holliday. I think I’ve made the perfect mix, the perfect groove." And so discussing the merits of Rhythm & Blues, Marco Paulison and Berenda Creswell crossed paths. They had lunch that day and most days after that. They found that despite very different backgrounds, they meshed well. Marco recognized the fact that most people go through life and never meet anyone so enchanting and so treated each day with her as the jewel it was. She broadened his horizons, introduced him to Phish and Hot Tuna. He worked hard to get her to appreciate the occasionally muddled musings of Ken Kesey. She liked falafel, he liked Manwich; she liked Merlot, he liked Sam Adams; she liked to sleep in, he liked to be up with the sun; they both liked teaching and they both liked each other, a lot. It was a match made in heaven. Fortunately, their music collections complemented and completed the other’s. By the end of her first year at W & J, they were an item known by one and all. They spent their weekends getting to know each other, their history, likes and dislikes. Although she kept her apartment on Beau Street, she spent most nights at Marco’s house, and he even made some space for her in his closet. "How is it you can afford this place, while I can hardly pay the rent at mine?" she asked one night as they sat on the deck in his back yard listening to the crickets chirp. Marco lived a comfortable life in a comfortable Cape Cod house, his life made easier by a comfortable inheritance. His family still lived in the big house on Lake Erie, a monstrous neo-gothic creation of questionable taste built with money made during the Prohibition. Family lore had it that they only dabbled in bootlegging, nothing like what went on over in Cleveland. Marco didn’t care. The sins of the father weren’t his problem. "I have a bank account," was how he responded. "Me too, but judging by your house, I’ll bet yours is better endowed than mine." Marco sat for a minute before telling her, "I’ve got family money." "No shit, Sherlock. What does your family do?" "These days, they fight over the money, mostly. But most of it was made during the Prohibition." "Really?" She sat up straighter in her chair. "You’re just making that up, aren’t you?" "Nope." He reached for his beer. "Real, honest-to-god bootleggers. Erie, PA isn’t the biggest port on the Great Lakes, but it’s a port nonetheless. Someone was going to bring the booze in and my great grandfather recognized a need when he saw it." "That’s so cool," she said quietly, sinking back into her Adirondack chair. "You don’t seem like you come from outlaw blood." He laughed. "Well, I suppose I don’t feel like I come from outlaw blood, although you never know how or when that’ll manifest itself, do you?" "What do you mean?" "I’ve been known to blow through a yellow light on occasion," he said, sipping his beer. "My boyfriend, the criminal." ### They drove the half an hour south on 79 from Pittsburgh to Washington together after the convention finally wrapped up. "I think there’s more to it. There’s more here than meets the eye," Marco broke the comfortable silence that enveloped them, the steady hum from the road barely audible above the radio. He reached over to turn the music down. "Do you remember a hand?" "A hand?" Berenda asked. "Yeah, a hand. I thought someone was trying to pick my pocket on the sidewalk." "You mean before lunch? Yesterday?" "Yeah, yesterday." "No. The only thing I noticed was the six-foot transvestite standing next to me. Did you notice? He wasn’t wearing a dress or anything, but he had on the make-up and a lot of perfume. I could almost see the stink lines radiating off him. Her. Whatever." "I didn’t notice," he laughed. "A girl wants to look her best, I guess." "Did you tell the detective?" Berenda asked, ignoring the comment. "Tell her…?" "…about the hand," she finished his sentence. "Not the transvestite? No, I’m just now thinking about it." Marco was deep in thought. Most of that afternoon’s seminar went in one ear and out the other. "I thought someone was trying to pick my pocket and I looked down just before the lady was hit by the taxi. There was so much confusion – it distracted me and I didn’t get a good look at anything, the hand or the taxi." The radio was barely audible now and Marco could hear Berenda breathe. He knew that if she didn’t have anything to say, she would say nothing. "It had a mark," he continued, concentrating to recall the moment, "a tattoo. Like, maybe a spider or a cross or something on the skin between the thumb and forefinger. You ever notice that on people before? I always thought it was a jailhouse tattoo when I saw it before." "So what are you saying, then?" Berenda slouched in the passenger seat and stared straight ahead into the darkness. "Maybe she was pushed." "Or maybe someone was trying to pick your pocket," she suggested. "Or maybe she was pushed," he insisted. "A pickpocket would have pulled his hand back more gently, with more finesse. I didn’t even turn to see who it was, it all happened so fast." Finally reaching the Washington exit, Marco pulled off the interstate at Murtland Avenue and turned onto North Street, headed toward the college. They drove through quiet neighborhoods, one big Victorian house after another, most of them built at the turn of the last century when Washington was still a steel town. Marco had always thought it sad to see how some of the huge houses that lined these streets were unceremoniously chopped up into apartments. These grand dames deserved better than that. By the time they pulled into the driveway at his house on Lemoyne Avenue, Marco was sure. The hand wasn’t for him, it was for Dr. Molly Hensle. "What do you think, Berenda?" he asked inserting his key into the front door and jiggling it gently to get it to turn in the lock. "OK. Here’s what I think. I think you’re still wound up from the whole thing. Hell, I’m still wound up. But that’s OK, honey." She kissed him lightly and walked past him into the house. "I can’t wait to get into my own bed." Marco closed the door behind him and locked it. As he passed the phone in the kitchen he noted four new messages on the answering machine, absently pushed the button to retrieve them and followed Berenda. His mother’s voice babbled from the speaker. Berenda was already headed to the basement to get a couple of beers out of the beer fridge. She came back up the stairs and handed him one as she went by, walking to the back door, also ignoring Marco’s mother’s voice. Marco followed, lost in thought and paying no mind to the background noise that was his mother’s pack-a-day rasp. "Marco, I think it’s a little nerve wracking, just having watched it." She pulled up a chair on the back deck. "I was there, too. I saw what you saw, but I didn’t see a hand. I definitely saw a transvestite, but no hand. I thought maybe she just was, you know, jostled and took a step off the curb to balance herself. But if someone pushed her off balance, you no longer have a terrible accident." In the darkness, she turned to look at him. "You have a murder."