George C. Chesbro

An Affair Of Sorcerers

Chapter 1

Channel 13, the PBS station in New York City, had been conducting its annual fund-raising auction, and my smartass brother had bought me a dozen tympani lessons with the Principal Tympanist of the New York Philharmonic; that was his idea of a practical joke. As far as I was concerned, the joke was on dear old Garth: I got rhythm. It was easy enough to practice; all I needed was a score, two pencils and a flat surface to beat on. I had a full set of kettledrums on order, and I couldn't wait to hear Garth's latest discourse on what he believed to be my obsessive need to overcompensate.

With eight lessons behind me, I already had visions of auditioning for the New Jersey Symphony; at the very least, a dwarf tympanist should guarantee them a sold-out season.

It was a Friday morning at the end of July, and I was in my uptown office. I'd finished the summer courses I'd been teaching, I had no clients and there was absolutely nothing I had to do for six weeks. Paradise Now. I planned to gorge my head on New York's cultural cornucopia and drum the rest of the summer away.

I was in the middle of the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth, hoarsely pum-pum- pumming the main theme, tapping madly away in a big roll and impressive crescendo, when Dr. Peter Barnum, Chancellor of the university where I teach, knocked on my door and walked in. I finished the measure, then folded the score and dropped the pencils on top of it.

Barnum's craggy, sixty-year-old face was slightly flushed, and there were thin lines of tension around his mouth. He stopped in front of my desk and smiled tightly as he nodded toward the music score. 'Are you thinking of changing departments, Dr. Frederickson?'

Barnum was an austere, distant man, and it was the first time I'd ever heard him try to be funny; it surprised me, since we usually gave each other a fairly wide berth. I had considerable respect for Barnum's administrative and fund-raising talents, but I didn't think he cared too much for me. He'd made clear in a number of faculty memos that he didn't approve of moonlighting college professors or celebrities on his staff; he knew I fitted into the first category, believed I was in imminent peril of joining the second. Also, in the past I'd suspected that he considered the idea of having a dwarf on his faculty somewhat undignified.

'I'd hoped I was getting the hang of the Criminology Department, Chancellor,' I said, my tone idling in neutral gear. I rose and shook the long, bony hand he offered. It was moist. 'Please sit down.'

He did, nervously perching his tall, thin frame on the edge of the chair as if he were expecting someone to call him to a speaker's dais. 'You're a fine professor, Dr. Frederickson,' he said, clearing his throat and not quite looking at me. 'Your teaching and scholarship have been uniformly excellent. I regret that we haven't been able to establish a more. . personal relationship. I'm afraid I'm simply not very gregarious.'

'You're a fine chancellor, sir,' I said, puzzled by the drift of the conversation but deciding it was time to toss a blossom back. 'That's all any faculty member has the right to expect from you.'

'You also have an impeccable reputation as a private investigator,' he said like a man who was choosing his words carefully. 'It's remarkable that a man with your handi-' I doubted that he saw anything in my face, but he stopped anyway and shook his head, embarrassed. 'I'm sorry,' he continued curtly. 'The fact is that I'd like to hire you.' He raised a hand, coughed lightly behind it. 'I mean as a private detective.'

Another surprise; Barnum was full of surprises. I sat and stared at him for a few moments, thinking about Tchaikovsky, hoping Barnum would change his mind and go away. He didn't. 'You didn't have to drive up here, Chancellor,' I said at last. 'I would have been happy to see you at your office.' If I was going to turn him down, the least I could do was be polite.

'I know you would have,' he said, waving a skeletal hand in the air as though I'd made a preposterous suggestion. 'I prefer it this way. Actually, I don't want anyone to see us together.' He paused, blinked nervously. 'What I have to say must remain in the strictest confidence, Dr. Frederickson.'

For a change, the air conditioning in the building was working. Still, the few strands of white hair that ringed the bald dome of Barnum's head were damp with perspiration. A vein throbbed in his neck.

'Everything my clients tell me is taken in confidence,' I replied evenly. 'That's the way I work.'

'But you haven't said whether or not you'll help me,' Barnum said warily.

'You haven't told me what it is you want, Chancellor. Until you do, I can't commit myself. In any case, whatever you have to say will go no farther than this office.'

Barnum passed a hand over his eyes as if trying to erase a bad vision, then leaned back in the chair and stared absently at the nameplate on my desk. Finally he raised his eyes and looked directly at me. 'I'd like you to investigate Dr. Vincent Smathers,' he said thickly.

That got my undivided attention and a long, low mental whistle. I could understand Barnum's penchant for secrecy. Vincent Smathers was the university's most recent-and rarest-prize catch; an experimental behavioral psychologist who was a Nobel laureate. University chancellors don't normally make a habit of investigating their Nobel Prize winners; the usual procedure is to create a specially endowed one-hundred-thousand-dollar chair, which was precisely what had been done for Smathers.

'What's the problem?' I asked.

'I. . hear things,' Barnum said, his face reddening.

'What things, Chancellor?'

'I'm sorry,' he said archly, 'but I don't wish to repeat them. At this time they must be classified as nothing more than gossipy minors. If you do agree to conduct this investigation for me, I don't want you to begin with any preconceived notions. I know it sounds strange, but I must insist it be done this way.'

Barnum paused, raised his eyebrows slightly. When I didn't say anything, he continued in a lower, even more confidential tone: 'As you know, we're under increasing financial pressure. I have a responsibility to protect the university from any scandal that could hurt our student recruitment or gaining of Federal grants. I just want to make certain that everything appears … as it should.'

'You mentioned rumors, but you talk as though something may already have happened. Is there anything now that doesn't appear as it should?'

'There is something. .' He shrugged, continued after a thoughtful pause. 'I don't know; perhaps I'm being overly suspicious.'

'Suspicious about what, Chancellor? It would help if you gave me some idea of what's bothering you.'

Barnum tapped his fingertips together, took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Again I hoped he was going to forget the whole thing, and again he disappointed me. When he finally spoke, his voice was somehow different- strong and even, as though only at that moment was he fully committed and prepared to live with his decision.

'Dr. Smathers brought an associate with him-Dr. Chiang Kee,' the Chancellor said quietly but firmly. 'Kee, in turn, brought an assistant with him, also Chinese. I'm not sure Kee's assistant can even speak English. Quite frankly, the man just doesn't look like someone with a university background.'

It was my turn to shrug. 'Neither do I.'

Barnum's gray eyes flashed. 'I assume that's meant to chastise me for almost saying you're handicapped.'

'No, sir,' I said evenly. 'I'm saying that you, better than anyone else, should know that you get some pretty strange types on a university faculty, most of them thoroughly qualified for the work they're doing. I'm just trying to save you-or the university-some money.'

Barnum cleared his throat. 'Uh, how much do you charge?'

'A hundred twenty a day, plus expenses. But you haven't spent a cent yet. I like working at the university, and I get along. I'm sure you understand that I'd have to believe there was very good cause before I started nosing into the affairs of a colleague. It has something to do with academic freedom.' I leaned forward and folded my hands on the desk. 'You still don't want to tell me about the rumors?'

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