I heard the ringing as I rose to the surface from a deep dive. At first I thought it was part of the dream. But by the third ring I was gently peeling back the covers so as not to disturb Andrea, although she was a sound sleeper. I put both feet on the floor, trying to keep my movements soundless, and gingerly grabbed my phone. Middle of the night calls are never a good thing.
“Hello,” I croaked, lucky my voice was audible. Barely.
“This is Officer Symonds from the university police. Is this Mike Woodsen?”
“Hi, Phil. Yeah, ’sme. What’s up?”
A longish pause. “Dispatch fielded a call, one hour and three minutes ago. The caller, with a voice characteristic of a young male, reported that he had sighted a body on campus. Not moving. Upon further questioning, he described the approximate location. Dispatch identified a cruiser in the vicinity and sent two officers to investigate. Upon reaching the aforementioned location they debarked from the cruiser and proceeded to investigate. The caller was at the scene and helped to direct officers to the precise location. A brief search revealed that a body was present. The officers responded to dispatch and per our protocol the chief was notified and we began the normal alert process.”
I shook off the last of the grogginess, stretched to get my circulation going and grabbed a pen. I started scribbling on the first thing in front of me, some magazine renewal notice that had fallen onto Andrea’s dresser. Andrea moaned softly, a reminder to keep my voice down. “A body. What time is it now?”
“Uh-huh. Location?” I carefully printed Body.
“Near Main Central. To be precise, in a vegetated area adjoining the building.”
Right near my office. Well, that got my attention. A body outside my office, in the center of campus. Another pause. I waited. And waited.
“Was the caller a student?”
“Do you want a name? It was a student. Said he was heading back from a late night in a lab.”
“No names yet. Please continue.”
“The officers performed a cursory hands-off examination, following normal procedure. The person appeared to be deceased. Additional authorities were notified, per our protocols for handling situations like this. Which includes notifying you as PIO.” Short for Public Information Officer, who manages relations with the news media.
Fully awake, I wrote Dead in front of Body. A university is usually pretty quiet, especially after hours, except maybe during exam week, which this was not. We have our share of incidents. And people do die. Usually students and usually alcohol-related. And we’ve had our suicides too.
“Phil, any idea if it’s a student?”
I could hear a deep breath.
“Don’t want to speculate. We’re still trying to get a positive ID. The Medical Examiner is on the scene now, as am I as the SOCO.” Scene of Crime Officer. They loved their acronyms. “But he looks older. I see some gray hair visible. Could be an older student, or really anyone. At this point we don’t know.”
“Huh.” I was writing on the renewal form: Gray hair. Near Main Central, 3 am. Student? When these things happen it’s near the dorms or frats, or in apartments near campus. Someone drinks too much and falls. Over a balcony. Off a roof. Even out a window. Or a fire escape. But never before in the center of campus. At least not on my watch of little over a decade.
“Any media calling yet?” This was my job, helping the police with the reporters. Usually the cops would provide the details to the media directly from the official report, terse version, and that was that. But if things got hairy I’d help them out, shoulder part of the work. It wasn’t spelled out anywhere exactly who would answer the questions in an incident like this, because they were so infrequent; we’d work it out on the fly. But I was inclined to do as much as I could. It was a way of staying in the cops’ good graces, a deposit in the Favor Bank, should I ever need to make a withdrawal. You never know.
“No. But we’ve been using the scanner since before the first officers arrived on scene, so it’s been broadcast pretty widely. And it’s probably all over social media; I haven’t had time to look.”
“Right. I’ll get dressed and be there in fifteen minutes. And we’ll figure out what to say to reporters. Not much, given what we know.”
I could almost hear him nodding. “Not much. See you soon.”
I dressed quickly in Andrea’s bathroom. My shirt was wrinkled but no one would care. If I spruced up people probably wouldn’t recognize me. My anything-goes hair style was starting to obstruct my vision: time for my six-week barber visit, if I couldn’t persuade Andrea to trim the fringe. I turned sideways and frowned at my slight paunch. I grabbed my keys and notebook and headed out.
From Andrea’s apartment it was a quick drive to campus, even quieter than the rest of the city late at night. The air was supporting either heavy dew or light mist. Welcome to the moist days of early autumn in the Pacific Northwest.
Campus was empty. As I headed down the main drive, I noticed the few deciduous trees had begun turning fiery under the muted lighting. Some of the firs were already brown and had dropped their first needles. It was a campus with a mix of classic university architecture and relatively inoffensive modernist boxes. But the best natural features were the lush vegetation and signature meandering creek that rolled through the middle of campus, deeply set into a cleft that ran north-south, beloved by current and former students.
I pulled into the parking area in back of Main Central, where the chief administrators including the president worked. My office, the news office, was there, too — although they persistently threatened to move us out in favor of someone more important. And in the university hierarchy, we were regularly reminded, just about anyone was more important than we were.
I parked alongside the squad cars. I could hear chatter from the cruisers’ radios, punctuated by beeps, hisses and the occasional growl.
I had been to a few death scenes as a daily newspaper reporter, mostly auto accidents, and never got used to them. Death, even the thought of it, made me sick to my stomach. Just observing a dead human body, even from a distance, gave me shivers.
Right outside my office.
A half-dozen officers, some from campus and a couple in city uniforms, were standing around in a semicircle on the asphalt sidewalk near some empty bike racks and a row of low bushes. A few students, probably alerted through social media, were lurking on the periphery, staring down at their phones or trying to find a clear path for a photo. I’m sure they’d be shooting selfies with the body if the cops would let them.
The body was visible just where the bushes surrounding the building ended and the grass began. It was still uncovered, as the Medical Examiner’s team was continuing its work.
The surrounding area was dimly lit by the waist-level lamps focused on campus walking paths. I could see two or three people dressed in purple windbreakers kneeling around the body next to squarish briefcases. One of them was holding a portable floodlight that cast its too-white LED glare over the corpse. I could see a limp hand stretching in my direction. I imagined it reaching out, trying to grasp something. The body was prone, legs splayed at an unnatural angle. A sandy mop of hair, salt and peppered. The other arm straight out 90 degrees from the neck, also bent midway between wrist and elbow. The soles of both feet rested almost squarely on the grass, bending back the ankles. There was a gentle hum of half-whispers from the ME’s team.
I’m no medical expert, but it looked to me like he had fallen from some great height. I looked up and saw the arched Gothic windows of Main Central, the likely place where his final descent began.
And I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but people generally don’t just fall out of windows, unless they’re drunk or intending suicide. Which would make this a crime scene.
I edged into the group of officers and found Phil Symonds.
“M.E. still doing his thing?”
Phil turned, giving me a look as if I had intruded on something, but when he recognized me his face softened. He was well over six feet, towering above me by a good five inches (more when I slouched, which was always) and had a nearly shaved head except for sideburns. Even when he relaxed I could see the outline of the rippling muscles under that uniform. He was absently slapping his oversized flashlight against his palm, waiting for something to happen.
“I think he’s almost done. But no COD mentioned yet.”
I figured that meant cause of death. “Any more news?”
Phil scratched his chin. “Not really. If we’re lucky he’ll give us an I.D. before taking away the DB.”
Dead Body. This guy loved procedural acronyms, even ones he made up on the spur of the moment. “Not sure I’d call it lucky.”
“Well, all other things being equal, I’d just as soon bounce the media to him. If we are told he’s one of ours, which is likely, then I have to field the calls.”
Phil chuckled. “You looking for an easy way out? I thought you got the big bucks just for times like this.”
“Nah, I get paid the little bucks for touting what a great place this is for sending little Johnny or Sarah off to get an education, what great faculty they will have. That’s what us PR types do. Not dealing with DBs. They don’t pay me enough for that.”
Phil kicked at a clod of weeds left behind by the gardeners. “Truth is, neither of us get enough for that. That’s one of the reasons I left city law enforcement.”
The only way I recognized the ME was that he was the only one wearing a suit. Not a pressed suit. He looked like he’d worn it to bed. He resembled an overworked, underslept, overfed bulldog. When he turned away from the body I decided to try acting official with him. I blocked his path.
“I’m the PIO here. Anything you can tell me?”
He looked me up and down and scowled. I heard a deep growl. “We don’t release anything until we’ve examined the body in the lab.”
“Can you at least tell me his name? I’m gonna get calls.” As if on cue, over his shoulder I saw the first TV news crew pulling into the lot.
“Not until we confirm his identification. And try to contact next of kin.” He turned away.
“That went well,” I said to Phil.
“That’s the drill.” He yawned. “Call us about mid-morning and we’ll probably have his ID for you.”
I liked Phil and the other campus cops that I knew well. They had gravitated to law enforcement out of a desire to serve and protect, as the motto said, as well as lock up the bad guys, but the percentage of hot dogs and cowboys (to mix metaphors) here on campus was pretty low. Not enough juice for adrenalin junkies. They had opted for the relative peace of a college campus and enjoyed acting as mentors and occasional parent-substitutes. For the most part it was a sweet gig.
A couple of university cops were helping load the body onto a gurney. Some of the ME’s techs were still examining the ground where the body had been, taking samples, but even if they found something it was obvious they weren’t going to tell me.
“Any reason for me to hang around here?”
“Not unless you like watching paint dry.” He sniffed. “This is my first death on campus. Just seems wrong to find a body in a place like this. Still, anything is possible.”
“Who’s going to call the shots?”
“I’m going to tell the chief that we should lead the investigation and not defer to the city cops. They have the technology, but this is our turf. And if there are people to interview, they’ll probably be more comfortable talking to us.”
“You going to issue some brief statement?”
“Suppose I should. Once the normal day begins, the social media will light up with speculation. Better to try and head off the worst of it. Yeah, I’ll put something together, ultra-terse. We found a body. No ID. Investigation underway. News at 11. You wanna see it?”
“Nah, I trust you. But I’ll call you mid-morning to see how it’s going.”
Phil looked around. “I’ll handle that TV crew if you want. Go home and catch a few z’s.”
As I headed to my car I snagged the TV reporter, told him the little we knew and advised him that at this point no one was likely to go on camera but pointed out Phil as the contact with the PD.
Calls from reporters started coming in while I was driving home. I figured there was no reason to disturb Andrea twice in the same night by going back to her apartment; at least one of us should get a good night’s sleep.
Our intrepid local reporters were just filled with incisive questions, and I was ready with witty and complete responses:
No, we don’t have identification.
No, we don’t know cause of death.
No, we have no reports of a serial killer on or near campus.
No, we haven’t alerted the students and are not on lockdown in the dorms.
Yes, you can go to the scene, but don’t disturb the crime tape if there is any.
No, I won’t go on camera to tell you we don’t know anything yet.
The calls continued sporadically into the early morning. So much for trying to catch a little sleep. I came late to my windowless office in the bowels of Main Central. Fran, our receptionist, cocked a single eyebrow at my arrival.
“You could say that. Cops called me about three.”
“A body. Right around the corner.”
She perked up. It’s amazing how death makes people pay attention.
“I heard some reports on the radio and saw a couple of mentions on social media. Anyone we know?”
“Speaking of which, where were you after midnight?”
“I have a long list of people I’d like to do in. Starting with….”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess.”
She pasted a mock-grimace on her face, her eyes dancing with mischief. “Only if I could do it slowly and painfully.”
“Well, stay tuned and have hope. Maybe someone else beat you to it.”
I checked my emails. They were of the same flavor as the calls: reporters jockeying for position, trying to claim I owed them favors, that they would do the best job if I called them first, that they had heard rumors that foul play was suspected.
As a university news office, we dealt mostly with faculty who make news through their research findings, which we announced through news releases and briefings. Second on the hit parade was the never-ending need in the media for experts to comment on a wide range of subjects, lending perspective and gravitas. Third was providing information on general campus events ranging from student demonstrations and the occasional scandal (often involving athletics) to megagifts and opulent new buildings. Crime was seldom serious enough for news coverage, thank goodness.
It was mid-morning by my reckoning. I called Phil.
“So, what can you tell me?”
“No COD yet. But the ME has said, not yet for public consumption, that there were no signs of injury other than what would’ve occurred when the body hit the ground.”
“So, he fell?”
“That’s the current theory.”
“And that means… he was in the building? In Main Central?”
“Can’t put anything over on you, can we?”
I began rummaging for a note pad and one of those fat pens that fit my stubby fingers. My desk was its usual mess.
“So, we’re thinking this guy worked here or was a student?”
Geez, this was like pulling teeth. The phone made a scratchy noise rubbing against my indifferently shaved chin. “Do you have a positive ID?”
The phone seemed to go dead. Except Phil was a heavy breather.
“Phil? You still there?”
“The ME has confirmed his identity. But they don’t want to release until they’ve notified family. And if possible, they’d like to nail down the COD.”
“Well, I hope he decides quickly.”
“I do, too. Otherwise there’s going to be a shitstorm. A real shitstorm. People around here aren’t patient when it’s one of their own. And the shit always flows downhill, to us.”
“Geez, Phil, what’s going on?”
“Look, this is all off the record, OK?”
“Hey, the same person signs our paychecks.”
“This guy was a big deal. A veep.”
“Do you know who Jeremy Ronson is? Or was?”
“Yeah. He does, or did, something with administrative systems for computing. Tech support for campus infrastructure. Something like that.”
“If you say so. Right here it says, ‘Vice President for Strategic Infrastructure Support and Vice Provost for Systems Design and Integration.’”
“Yeah, just what I said. We have a positive ID?”
“Seems so. But the ME wants to wait on releasing it. It’s looking like an accident but they want to tie up some loose ends. And I suspect the chief wants to make calls to some of the leaders around here. So there are some wrinkles in releasing his name, some protocols we’ve never had to use before. This is one of those sensitive cases that almost never happens. So give us some time.”
“With luck, by the end of the day.”
“That may seem soon for you, Phil, but for me it’s going to be an eternity. Not only will the media be all over me for details. Those calls have started. But the campus rumor mill is already hard at work. I mean, if Ronson is the victim he’s going to be missed. People will notice and they’ll start to put the pieces together, even when they don’t fit. Who knows what stories they’ll come up with. If we don’t get news out soon the rumors will be the story of the day, right or wrong. Once the false story gets broadcast, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
I had a few stories of my own to account for Ronson’s death that were starting to form themselves in my head: High-ranking administrator takes a header in the middle of the night out an office window from a building normally unoccupied at that time. What could be suspicious about that?
It was clear from Phil’s radio silence that he was unimpressed with my situation.
“I guess I’ll just hunker down between now and then. But do what you can to hurry this along, please. People, especially the media, are going to get suspicious if they think they’re being played. And then we’ll have a real shitstorm.”
When I heard his click I put down the phone and went to talk with Fran.
“Be back in a few minutes,” I told her. She got pissed when I left unannounced, not knowing to whom I’d bequeathed what we jokingly called “the football,” in imitation of the Strategic Air Command launch codes. These were the urgent calls that no one else wanted to handle.
I headed for the spot where they’d found Ronson’s body, now a patch of bare earth in the midst of the verdant lawn. I looked up. The building’s Gothic-style windows, stretching up five floors, had tiny rectangular glass panes which occasionally came loose from their moorings, crashing to earth without notice. These tall windows opened outward with a simple handle. A fall from the fourth floor was surely enough to be fatal. Ronson’s office was up there. It was nearly impossible for me to imagine someone just falling out of a window that high, that exposed, without some help.
And they’re saying he just fell? Nonsense. If they asked me (which they never did), I’d suggest one obvious option.
Technically, defenestration applies only when someone is forcibly ejected from a window. You could stretch it to include self-defenestration. But I wasn’t buying this “accident” explanation that Phil had just offered. I imagined Ronson leaving the building, however he was propelled, and landing with a thud and low-frequency cracks. Geez. Ah, time to return to the office and answer the calls that surely were piling up.
I referred the steady stream of reporters to the ME’s office, who kept bouncing them back to me. No one was happy. I knew that if I was still on the beat at a daily, I’d be unhappy, too. Fran was giving me The Look, meaning the callers were getting testy with her — but she always gave at least as good as she got. She also knew we could stiff-arm reporters for only so long when we actually had the goods. They’d start calling everyone they could, including our bosses, with inflammatory rumors and veiled threats.
“You hidin’ down there?” It was Rolf Trencher, my boss. The one Fran usually targeted in her fantasies. Of mayhem, that is.
“Just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“Well, before it does, do you have a minute?”
“Be right up.”
The offices got bigger as you rose in Main Central. And the titles grew longer. You could often measure the salary by the length of title. Ronson had one of those double-barreled titles suggesting handsome compensation. Trencher was up on the third floor, a little lower than the angels and fundraisers (as if there were a distinction).
In the wave of pseudo-business-speak that had swept through administrative offices like a plague in the past several years, it was no longer sufficient to describe what someone did. If you were sufficiently high-ranking you were blessed with an “aspirational” title, reflecting some airy, unachievable but nonetheless worthy goal. The people pushing this approach had read some crackpot article and convinced our president that such titles focused people’s attention on what they should be doing. For a place that prided itself on careful research in its laboratories, it continued to amaze me that leaders were able to rationalize adopting new administrative strategies based on zero evidence.
Trencher’s title used to be something like Associate Vice President for Public Affairs. Late one night, someone with a stencil kit defaced his door, which still bore:
Associate Vice Leader for Aural Excellence
Champion of The Golden Name
I knocked and entered. “Fun day we’re going to have,” I offered.
“Any word from the ME?”
He was still typing an email. Despite the fact that he was one of the higher-ranking execs, entitled to all sorts of luxurious appointments, he worked in a bare, utilitarian office, his perch behind a faux-wood metal desk. The room had a small table that looked like it had been lifted from a sidewalk cafe, piled high with thick reports. The only notable piece of furniture was the fine oak chair with a cushion in university colors in which I was sitting. The walls were covered with photos of academic celebrities, some of whom I recognized, but most to me were just old white men dressed in academic garb. One wall had a white board upon which Trencher had last written many months ago. In one corner was a large and very uncomfortable-looking rocking chair with the university’s seal. And in another a seldom-used coat rack.
“Not yet. Hoping it’s soon.”
He pivoted from behind the computer and stood up. All five feet of him in suspiciously augmented shoes. He ran a hand through hair that was thinning beyond the point where the comb-over was a viable strategy, but apparently he wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that. He cracked his knuckles. How I hated that sound.
He was dressed in a flashy, expensive suit, cut in the severely tailored, form-fitting style usually associated with places like Milan. He also was wearing striped suspenders and cuff links. Trencher was what the Victorians would call a dandy.
“We should try to get this behind us as soon as we can.”
“Kind of depends on the ME’s pronouncement.” The view from his windows gave the sweep of the campus and on a clear day (this wasn’t one of them) the distant mountains, which now bore a light dusting of autumn snow, still too little for the ski slopes to open. His windows were tall, too. Big enough to accommodate a mid-sized individual without crouching; more than tall enough for Trencher to exit without bumping his head. Just sayin’.
“We’re pretty sure it was an accident,” he said. Trencher’s power consisted of the things he knew, especially those gleaned from conversations with the campus elite, so he gave out information like it was coming from Scrooge’s purse pre-Marley. But you could be reasonably sure he had his information from highly-placed sources.
“What else could it be? Guy is found on the grass just below the windows to his office. Maybe he was drunk. But surely accidental. Let’s tie a bow on it quickly and ship out the news as soon as possible. Get it behind us.”
He paused for dramatic effect. “And put your reporter’s instinct in deep freeze for once. Mike, I want this one done quickly and without rancor. Is that clear?”
I gave Trencher a nod and a mock salute. I never found it productive to argue with him, although I was inexpert at concealing my opinions. He regarded conversation as a mixed martial arts event in which all arguments, logical or not, were weapons. I just wanted to gather information and reach conclusions through a frank exchange of views, but that almost never happened. Like dogs in a confined space, we had each marked our territory long ago.
“We’ll know pretty soon, the cops tell me.”
“Do you want help drafting a press statement?”
I tried to hide my revulsion. The word prolix (itself a hifalutin way of saying verbose) had his photo nearby in the dictionary. A tic left over from a too-long career on the academic side, where accomplishments could sometimes be measured in pounds of paper.
“We could use a quote from the president,” I parried. “About the ‘immeasurable loss to the institution.’”
Trencher snorted. “Some loss.” The corners of his mouth sagged.
“He wasn’t well regarded?”
“The guy was an asshole. Of the first rank. And incompetent. Things — decisions, responses, almost anything that required his input — would stop dead in his office for months. He was disinvited from cabinet meetings, the only time I’ve ever seen that happen. A royal PITA.”
“Persona non grata.”
“What?” He’d stopped listening to me. His mind had already dismissed our meeting and moved on to his next activity of the day.
“Not Mister Popularity.”
Trencher resumed his work on the computer, signaling the end of our conversation.
“I’ll get you a quote in the next hour. Let me see your statement before we send it out.”
I closed the door behind me.
I was back for no more than ten minutes when the phone rang. Phil from campus police.
“ME’s report came in.”
“Let me guess. Natural causes.”
“Not unless falling out a window is regarded as natural.” A stab at constabulary humor.
“So he’s saying Ronson’s death was accidental?”
“The findings are that he was killed by the fall. Preliminary tox screen is negative. No alcohol, no drugs. No obvious signs of struggle. A broken neck. Dislocated shoulder. Busted femur. Broken arm. Dislocated joints. A couple of busted ribs. Based on these facts, and with our concurrence, the ME is calling this an accidental death. We have found no evidence that would call this a homicide or a suicide.’”
I began mentally drafting our statement as he talked. After ten years I could do this kind of thing in my sleep.
“Did you look in his office? Anything out of place?”
Phil laughed. “Hard to tell. The guy was a pack rat. There were piles of paper everywhere, on every surface. Looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in at least a year. But we’ll confer over here and issue a report soon. No obvious signs of foul play. No farewell note, either. So odds are the report will call his death accidental.”
“What does the ME say about the time of death?”
“He just said late evening or early morning.”
“Did Ronson usually work late? Did he have a reason for being here in the middle of the night?”
“Why are you asking me? I couldn’t pick the guy out of a lineup.”
“I thought you were in charge of the investigation.”
“I am. Or I was. It’s over. Except for tying up the findings and signing the report. The chief wants this over and done with. It looks pretty cut and dried.”
“Case closed.” I was thinking this was unusually fast. I thought of Trencher’s instructions and could imagine Phil trying to tie a bow on the police report. Conclusion first, then write to fit it. Not a good plan for finding the truth.
“Yeah. Anything else?”
“No. You want to see my news release?”
“Probably not. I’ll ask the chief and see if he has any interest. As long as it doesn’t go beyond our findings.”
“Probably won’t even mention them beyond the ME’s declaration.”
I started to do my diligence and gather the necessary details to flesh out the statement. Like the police investigation, it was going to be short and sweet: I tried to suppress my uneasy feelings about this whole operation. What had caused this rush to judgment? I put the finishing touches on my news release.
University mourns the passing of top-ranking administrator
The body of Jeremy Ronson, 57, who had worked at the university for more than twenty years and headed the strategic infrastructure division, was found on campus by a passing student early this morning.
The Medical Examiner has determined that his death was accidental.
“Jeremy Ronson’s untimely death has shocked us all,” said President Marchand Yarmouth. “We celebrate his many contributions to this fine university as we grieve along with his many friends and colleagues.”
A celebration of Ronson’s life is being planned on campus but no date has been set.
Ronson, who had a doctoral degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, had been at the university since 1991. He was in charge of the division that provides and maintains the computing infrastructure for most administrative functions. The division has an annual budget of $30 million and employs more than 300 people.
He had no family, or none that I could easily locate. The ME was trying to figure out where to send the remains, but we needed to issue the statement pronto. And none of the reporters really cared about survivors; he wasn’t of the stature that would’ve merited a public obit, save for the nature of his demise. And even that was worth an inch or two at most these days.
After passing the release upstairs to Trencher for one last look, arranging for distribution to the usual media suspects and posting it online, I went outside again and looked up again at Ronson’s window.
I was feeling itchy. The ME’s conclusion struck me as too hasty and quite possibly wrong. I wanted to take a peek in Ronson’s office. I needed first-hand convincing that he had simply fallen out the window.
In my experience, it was rare to complete any death investigation in a single day. My years as a reporter had nurtured my skepticism for so long that even now, immersed in university bureaucracy, I was always wary of the official story. And this story set off all kinds of warning signals for me.
The easiest thing was to head right up and try his door. I waited until the end of the day when the building was nearly empty. I was sure that officially I wasn’t supposed to be there and I didn’t want to cause any raised eyebrows. But there were no signs prohibiting entry, no crime tape. After all, the police had completed their work.
Door was locked. No surprises there.
My efforts frustrated, I decided to take another look at the scene from ground level. On my way out, I ran into Gina Gertsch, one of our staff writers and mistress of all things tech.
“Hey, Gina.” She always had a mysterious inner glow that illuminated everything around her. Although she was the youngest person in the office, she had quickly acquired a reputation as a great writer and interpreter of faculty research. She had a knack for disarming reluctant faculty sources with her incisive responses and a laser-like focus on the essentials. Her previous jobs with computer industry publications were a terrific background for this work. It probably didn’t hurt that her husband was a professor in the College of Engineering, which gave her instant credibility and social entree.
Her sharp features were accentuated by eyebrows that she had thinned to black lines. But she softened her appearance by wearing colorful ribbons around her neck. It was the only fashion touch she had acquired from her grandmother, who was born in Korea.
“End of a busy day,” she offered, walking up the stairs to the building’s south exit.
“Yeah. Who woulda thunk someone would take a header from the fourth floor of Main Central.”
She stopped just inside the door. “Who indeed?” She paused and licked her lips, readjusting her small backpack and biking helmet. “Are they calling this an accident?”
“Do people fall just out of windows?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. Just about to take another look at the scene from the outside. And I tried to get into his office,” I lowered my voice to a whisper, “but it was locked.”
She raised her brows to an inverted V. “Should you be doing that?”
“Maybe not. But I figure if no one knows…”
“I don’t need to warn you about the possible results of curiosity.” She lowered her voice. “Just remember, you’re not in a newsroom any more. No one around here is going to give you kudos for answering questions they didn’t want asked.”
“You’re probably right, but someone died here, a dozen steps away from where we’re standing.”
“True, but excuse me for wondering who asked you. Really, Mike, I’m all for truth and justice, but if you carry this further the only result, that I can see for certain is big trouble, for you.”
“I understand. And I appreciate your concern. But as they say in bridge, one peek is worth two finesses.”
She shook her head slowly. “If you’re determined to stick your neck out, let me know if I can help, as long as it doesn’t involve breaking and entering. The guy had a faculty appointment in computer science, although I think it was just a courtesy. Who knows?”
I held the door for her and waved goodbye.
“Be careful out there,” she shot over her shoulder.
I followed her out the door, stood on the bare spot below Ronson’s window and looked up. I scratched my chin and pulled out my trusty notebook. Ronson would have fallen about 40 feet to the ground floor, maybe a bit more given the tall ceilings in Main Central. Just out of curiosity, I did a quick calculation of how long it would take an object to fall that far: less than two seconds. Not much time to review your life. The landing area was about four feet out from the building’s edge. To my untrained eye it looked like there was some horizontal momentum to his last step on solid ground. I scribbled these observations, replete with question marks.
It was class break time, the last classes of the day for most students, and the background noise level around me rose. I walked slowly around the building’s perimeter, hoping a new perspective would add something. I held my thumb in front of my face, trying to compare the height of the window with its width. Truth is, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
“So, is this where it happened? The death, I mean?”
I turned around and saw this very tall blonde wearing a loose-fitting army fatigue jacket. She was carrying a backpack over one shoulder and had heavy-framed wide sunglasses that flared up at the corners, giving her a cat-like appearance. She had peach-colored lipstick and wore her hair up in a bun. The skin on her face looked mottled from an overdose of sun. Probably a grad student from California.
“Beg your pardon?”
She giggled and then quickly covered her mouth with her right hand. “Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. I mean, a guy died here. Didn’t he?”
“Yes, but how did you know? The details haven’t been released yet.”
“Who cares about facts when you have social media? It’s the top trending story on campus and probably in the state.” She shifted the pack to her other shoulder and kept a tight grip on her phone.
“Well, to answer your question, this is where the body was found early this morning.”
“Did he work in this building? Up there?”
She nodded. “It’s okay. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I’m sure the information will be forthcoming momentarily.” She waved her phone at me and grinned.
“I suppose.” I found myself mildly annoyed at her breezy attitude as she turned and strode away at the pace of a speedwalker. I took one last look at the window. I shook my head. This was just too weird to believe. And I didn’t.
I decided to take a look at social media and what was being said about Ronson’s death. Other than noting that a death on campus was uncommon, and the lateness of the hour, it hadn’t prompted much comment. To most university people and especially to students, Ronson was just another anonymous administrator whose high salary was another reason for the ever-increasing tuition.
Workday concluded, I headed back to Andrea’s. She had picked up some deli and had laid out the fixings on the pass-through counter between the kitchen and dining area. She brushed my lips with a kiss and rushed off to the kitchen, asking me how my day was. I was still mulling over the locked door and whether I had a non-destructive way of getting in. I knew it needed to be soon, before it was cleaned.
“Earth to Mike! Come in please!”
“I was asking how your day was.”
“Well, a day that begins with me climbing out of bed around three to go meet the police at the site of a dead person who fell or was pushed from a fourth-floor window in the building where I work can’t be all good.”
Andrea stopped, turned around and walked back, rubbing my shoulders. “I’m so sorry. Was it someone you knew?”
“Not well. In fact, hardly at all. Still, it’s a death. And the circumstances… well, they left me uneasy. The police are saying he fell, by himself, out of his office window.”
“I dunno. Unless he’d been drinking, which they say he wasn’t, I don’t understand how someone just falls out a window. It doesn’t add up.”
“My advice is to spend the evening clearing your head. Think about something else for a while. Like what you want to do this weekend. I heard there’s this terrific horror movie opening at the Regal. I know you don’t like them much, but you know I do. The word is this director is going to be this generation’s Wes Craven. He uses rookie actors, closes the set when shooting the scariest scenes…”
Andrea, a horror movie buff, quickly transitioned to talking about this director’s art. She knew I couldn’t care less about the horror genre, but she made a spirited effort at distracting me. Still, I kept trying to picture a body hurtling from a window, the victim suddenly realizing, too late, he had stepped off solid ground into nothing. The pieces refused to fit together.
But in my meanderings, I had at least figured out how I might get into Ronson’s office.