The beginning of an urban fantasy story. Sometimes the Devil really is in the details . . .
“ . . . and you really need more emphasis on the role of women and other marginalized groups, Ms. DeHahn. Look in the lacunae in the sources,” Dr. Eyrinie sniffed. “I’m certain that you can find material other, less objective, researchers have ignored, if not actively set aside.”
“Yes, Dr. Eyrinie.”
What she could see of her research proposal appeared to have been attacked by birds that had waded through orange juice. The professor used anything but red. “Red is too oppressive and negative,” the department chair had intoned. “We need to uplift and encourage students, not criticize them.” Melissa DeHahn thought that red, green, or purple plaid didn’t make much difference. Anything Dr. Eyrinie returned looked as if it had been bled upon. And that was if she liked you. She’d returned Robert’s paper in pieces, having changed, corrected, or marked every other word, then torn it in half. He switched advisors that afternoon. Melissa thought once more that he was the smart one.
“You see what I want?”
“Yes, Dr. Eyrinie.”
“Good. This has real potential if you can bring in non-traditional individuals and methodologies, Ms. DeHahn. And don’t forget theoretical and epistemological materials. Re-read Zhing L’clar’s article on post-Feminist structural critiques of Medieval sources, as well as Foucoult and Fanon.”
I’d rather walk over burning coals wearing magnesium socks. “Yes, Dr. Eyrinie.” She dutifully underlined that bit in her notes.
“Good. I won’t keep you any longer.”
Melissa did not flee, but she felt like it. Neither did she stand in the hall practicing her primal scream. Screaming made the secretary nervous, and poor Mrs. Whittier did not deserve any additional stress. Instead Melissa walked up two flights of stairs to the graduate student work area and faculty “Siberia,” cleared a space on the big, heavy conference table that someone had shoehorned into the room, and attacked it with the stress pillow. A long-ago grad student advisor of blessed sense and understanding had made a half-full pillow out of heavy canvas and sacking to be used when the urge to scream, break furniture, or throw things at faculty became overwhelming. Melissa would have preferred to go to the range for some recoil therapy, but not until she calmed down.
Only after the furious thwop, thwop, thwop ended did Ricardo Santos poke his head in. “I take it the fickle finger of fate has written?”
“Bled to death. I’m supposed to find material that doesn’t exist.”
He didn’t blink. “Lacunae again?”
“Ja. I wish she’d never heard that word.”
“Last year it was penumbra, wasn’t it?”
Melissa considered as she ran her fingers through her curly hair. “Um, no, that was Dr. Thing. I think Dr. E’s was, oh, that fake Russian thing from the psychology journal.”
“Oh yeah. I should have remembered it was Dr. Thing with penumbra.”
They heard someone on crutches drawing closer, and a pompous, fake-BBC voice chided, “No, no, it was Professor Orgcwicz in the greenhouse with a stiletto. Assuming we are referring to the same victim.” Dr. McGowen leaned into the doorway. “If you’ve finished killing the table, Miss DeHahn, could you see if those booklets are done, please?”
“Yes, sir.” She hid her things under the table and trotted down to the basement print shop. She lugged the crate of handouts back up to the fifth-floor and his office. “They’re ready.”
“Thank you very much, on the table there, please.” She set the box down, turned around, and he handed her an envelope. “I apologize for leaning on you so much recently. The doctors say I’ll be back on both feet next week, and I won’t have to impose anymore.”
“You’re welcome, and you haven’t imposed, sir, not at all.” He was so appreciative, and never bothered anyone unless he really couldn’t do it himself. She wished he’d been her advisor, but he did Renaissance Italian art history, not early medieval northern Europe. She’d managed to take one class with him, and while he was hard, very hard, he was also fair and treated grad students like fellow humans.
“So, when do you stage your escape?” He winked.
“The day after finals end, sir. Everything I have falls on the first day, and I agreed to help Dr. Thing proctor US History 101, since all sections are testing in the same room.”
“What stupid son-of-a-gun scheduled that?”
She smiled. “Dr. Thing. This way no one can call their fraternity, sorority, study group, or organization and grab answers, or pass answers along. She also made an entirely new test, with five variations.”
The light dawned and he smiled, chuckling. “So, how many psychology students are also proctoring?”
“Four. We’re alternating rows, so they observe half and we observe half. Dr. Liu is serving as door-check.”
“Good on her and on Liu! I look forward to hearing about the results.” H waved toward the door. “Now shoo, I have souls to crush, spirits to devour, and at least one overly optimistic sod to flatten with a Doric, not Corinthian column.”
“Doric sounds much more useful for that application, Andy,” Dr. Thankarjanunda, AKA Dr. Thing, stated from the doorway. “Melissa, congratulations on passing the proposal phase.” Dr. Thing pressed a small envelope into her hand as she passed. “Have a pint on me. You earned it.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
As the 737s wheels thumped into the belly of the plane, Melissa relaxed into the seat. Free at last, free at last, at least until we land. She couldn’t do research reading on the plane, couldn’t answer e-mails or texts while on the plane, and didn’t have to worry about her parents calling while she was in the air. Lord bless, but her mother was always finding lurid stories about murders and assaults wherever Melissa went to do research, and forwarding them, no matter how shaky the background or details. The last one had been about a student at Boston University who had been murdered by a jealous fellow-researcher and her body stuffed into the wall behind the drywall. Mom, I love you dearly, but I know better than to meet people at night in otherwise empty buildings in order to “sort things out.” Besides, they were researching the same topic. No problems there. Melissa closed her eyes and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet of the red-eye to Boston.
Once on the ground, she debated getting a cab or taking the MTA to get close to her hotel. She looked at the cab line and opted for the busses and trains. Melissa had navigated the London Underground and Paris’s METRO, the latter without knowing a word of modern French, and she’d long since perfected her public-transit “Don’t mess with me, I may be crazy” expression. It worked once more. One guy considered her, looked at the strange words on her tee-shirt, and decided to move on. Other than the usual challenges of navigating from bus to train to bus in an unfamiliar city, Melissa’s trip passed calmly and she got within half a mile of her hotel. She walked the rest of the way, wondering once more why so many coastal cities seemed to have oceanic humidity without the ocean breezes. She couldn’t smell ocean, but the air clung and she could feel her hair starting to curl even tighter.
The clerk at the not-all-that-bargain hotel gave her an odd look. “Ah, pardon my asking, but is your family one of those French-Irish blends?”
“No, sir, we’re more French-German. My paternal grandmother was Scottish.” More than once people had assumed she was black Irish, based on coloring, and Melissa didn’t blink at the question anymore. Her older brother still bristled for some reason, but then he bristled all day, every day.
“That must be it. You have a canny look to you,” and his accent thickened a little, briefly. Was he from the Old World, or just pretending? She wasn’t too far from the theater school, after all. “Room thirty-five, up the stairs, then the half-flight, on the left, by the overgrown fern. Breakfast is from six until nine Monday through Friday, seven to ten on Saturday and you are on your own for Sundays.” She signed for the key, went up to the room, and decided that overgrown did not begin to describe the fern that partly blocked the hallway. She’d seen smaller specimens in greenhouses, and wondered what they fed it, and how often. She had a gift for killing houseplants, no matter how hardy the tag claimed the plant might be. Even cacti died in her presence. She gave it a healthy space, edging past without touching the bright green, feathery foliage. The room looked snug, tidy, and had a decent writing desk and good light, as well as a tiny ‘fridge. The large tub in the bathroom met her standards, and she shook her head at the sign asking people not to fill it completely, lest the floor break or the room flood from overflow when they got in.
Melissa unpacked a few things, shook out her suit, and decided to nap. There was no point in scouting at noon, not as hot and sticky as the day seemed to be.
A cool front passed during the night, and walking to the archive didn’t feel as bad as she’d feared the next morning. Melissa had brought what she thought of as her “generic academic style” suit, slightly loose, slightly out-of-fashion, and navy blue with a basic open collar white blouse. She could blend into almost every department or library in that outfit, and could pass for a grad student or junior faculty with ease. She strolled quickly, dodged a lady walking too many small dogs, and found the special collections building. There she stopped, looking up at the dark gray, weathered collegiate gothic building. Those manuscripts and documents considered too rare, fragile, or unusual for the main Weidner Library were kept here, and the building seemed designed to warn off casual visitors. The hair on the back of her neck stood a little, and she reached back, smoothing it. The place reminded her of something, a church? Yes, that strange church in Alsace, the one built by the convent using money from a holy pear tree. Her parents had been on a genealogy trip, and had scoured the village cemetery looking for ancestors. Melissa didn’t like the memory, and made herself push it aside.
“No time like now,” she told herself, hitched her bag over her shoulder, and marched up the front steps, found the inset door, and ducked inside. It did not close with a loud movie-like thump, instead swishing silently. She approved. Once her eyes adapted, she found the student at the check in desk and approached. “Good morning. I’m Melissa DeHahn, and I have an appointment to look at the St. Laurent collection.” She presented her university and personal ID, along with the letter of recommendation from Dr. Eyrinie. The student looked at them, blinked, and nodded.
“Please take this and read the top three pages while I get Mr. Ordoves. You can sit there.” He pointed to a padded bench on the other side of the hallway.
“Thank you.” Melissa took the clipboard and sat. The top page was the usual stuff about proper handling of documents, using gloves at all times, not taking flash pictures, not uploading images of documents without filling out the electronic access form and paying the fees, the proper way to credit the archive, and so on. She wrinkled her nose at the bit about having to use all four lines of credit in every reference in articles and books, and wondered how one got around that. The next page reminded researchers that theft of documents would be prosecuted, that writing on documents remained verboten and to use only pencil on the paper provided by the archive, that materials could not leave the room, and so on.
Finally she got the page specific to the St. Laurent collection. Most of it read like others, including the warning that the manuscripts and documents were not in English and that dictionaries were not provided. Well, duh, if you get permission to use the materials, you must have been fluent in the languages to begin with in order to know what you needed to look at, since the catalogue entries are all in those languages. And researchers would not be left alone with the materials, and could not have their note-taking materials on the same table as the books. Once more Melissa hoped that a particularly nasty place in the afterlife had been reserved for the jerks who had ruined so much for later researchers.
(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved