1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.
2. Write the story that has to be written.
The wind blew cold on this dark December day. A golden-red streak in the west betrayed the setting sun in an otherwise granite sky. Heaven was a scrim that set the leafless elms afire with a burning-bush glow. Beneath the trees strode Professor Nicholas Arkoudas with a determination that rendered him oblivious to the atmospheric pyrotechnics. His icy hands were pressed deeply into the pockets of his black felt trench coat with its collar up, his head hunkered down so that his nose snapped over the top button. Though his steady gait made him appear to be more machine than flesh and blood, his wispy hair deserted the blue baseball cap, pulled tightly over his skull, to hover in such a way that he appeared to be some kind of walking plant life, like an ent in one of Professor Tolkien’s stories. On this afternoon his appearance mattered little as there were neither dogs nor children to frighten while he puffed his way along the sidewalk. All sane people were staying warm inside and preparing for the coming holidays. Arkoudas’s mind was firing rapidly as his body went through the motions. His was a beneficent insanity.
Dr. S. Lewis O’Brien sat at a drop-leaf table beneath a wagon-wheel chandelier in a darkly paneled kitchen with contrasting white cabinets. The white Formica counters were clear of everything except a sadly dented aluminum toaster. In fact, the kitchen was spotlessly clean except for the table, which groaned under what looked like mountains of undergraduate papers. O’Brien cradled his forehead in his smooth hands. In the heady idealism of August he had decided to take on grade inflation single-handedly by requiring more papers, less tests. In reality, he had only created more work for himself in December. In the end he would have to set a minute timer to limit the amount of attention he gave each essay. But the deforestation represented by these piles of shoddy student expositions was the least of O’Brien’s worries. At this moment his kitchen was less a retreat for marking, and more the room where he awaited his colleague Arkoudas. What was keeping him? “I suppose he had to walk,” said O’Brien aloud.
It had been about six hours since O’Brien called Arkoudas about finding the body of the department head in the senior seminar room. In the meantime, he had answered redundant questions from the police, cancelled class, and remained available for most of the afternoon. The police gave him permission to return home and he agreed to meet Arkoudas around 4 p.m. Now it was nearly five, and the waiting was increasing O’Brien’s anxiety. He featured himself progressively as the chief suspect. After all, he was the main antagonist in opposing the head’s plans to reduce the budget and eliminate two history chairs and all adjunct appointments. Publicly O’Brien had called Dr. Barnabas Thisleton a lackey of the administration, which, in O’Brien’s words, wanted to turn academics out into the cold for the sake of having a football program that never had a losing record. Actually, it was worse than that. He had also said that Thisleton was a murderer of the humanities, and that instruction and research were in peril unless such martinets were banished from academe.
It was overkill. The image that boiled in O’Brien’s brain was of a smacking a puppy with a brickbat. He shuddered at the words that had come from his mouth in the last faculty meeting. He regretted it all only moments after the meeting, but now he rued the day he was born after seeing Thisleton slumped over the conference table in a pool of blood. Arkoudas, who sat mute through the meeting as he had all the previous ones, was somehow his only hope, but he didn’t exactly know why.