Excerpt

Bloody Genius

John Sandford

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Bloody Genius, by John Sanford. When a famous and incendiary scholar turns up dead at the local university, Virgil Flowers heads to college to investigate the two feuding departments that might have been involved in the professor’s death. But he soon learns that everybody is ruthless and intense in academia, and doesn’t have long to which intense lunatic is the dangerous one.

Virgil spent the afternoon reviewing Trane’s work; the room was cool and damp and smelled like paper and floor wax. He got up to walk and think, a few times, wandering over to the government building. A few people stopped to peer into the office, checking the guy with the blues T-shirt.

Trane asked, “How are you doing?” a couple of times, and he said, “Good. You’re a good reporter,” and she was, and she went away, possibly mollified, possibly to pee.

Her reports were chronological, rather than ordered by subject matter, so Virgil made notes on a yellow legal pad, organized by subject.

There was one picture of the murder victim, Professor Barthelemy Quill, when he was alive, an informal portrait in his laboratory that looked like it might have been taken by a newspaper reporter—it had a newsy look.

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Judging from a door behind Quill’s shoulder, he was a tall man, over six feet. He had neatly trimmed short hair, originally light brown or blond, now shot through with gray, and a full head of it. Under the hair was a sober oval face with thin blond eyebrows and sharp blue-gray eyes that said, “I went to a private boy’s school and then off to the Ivy League”—a face you’d see on a high-level federal prosecutor or Naval officer.

The file also included a couple of dozen digital prints of the body as it was found, before it was moved and during the move, as well as closeups of the entire carrel and the area around it.

The blood from the head wound appeared black against the fair hair both at the wound and where it trickled down Quill’s skull to create a stain on the stone-tiled floor under his chin. He was wearing gray slacks, a gray shirt, and a black sport coat. The ensemble gave him the aspect of a vampire, especially since his lips were pulled back in a death grimace, revealing a long eye-tooth.

Trane had interviewed more than fifty persons who’d known Quill, including his estranged current wife, two ex-wives, two ex-lovers, all the lab employees, colleagues at the university and the neighbors, and a group of academics with whom he was feuding. She’d extracted from them narratives of their relationships with the dead man, and accounts of their locations on Friday and Saturday.

The academic feud had taken quite a bit of Trane’s time: there had been some violence involved, and she’d done interviews with both Quill supporters and Quill haters.

His laboratory director had tried to call him twice on Monday, but Quill’s phone had apparently been turned off. That was not unusual—he famously hated being interrupted “by any idiot who can poke a number into a keypad.”

Trane had had trouble determining the victim’s exact time of death, because Quill had been known for solitary walks around the campus. He’d left his lab, alone, at one o’clock Friday afternoon and hadn’t returned. He hadn’t shown up on Monday, either, which was unusual, but not unprecedented. His laboratory director had tried to call him twice on Monday, but Quill’s phone had apparently been turned off. That was not unusual—he famously hated being interrupted “by any idiot who can poke a number into a keypad.”

Because Trane hadn’t been able to determine an exact time of death—the medical examiner pegged it between Friday evening and noon Saturday—she’d been unable to eliminate alibis of the people closest to Quill, or those who’d been involved with Quill in the feud, a vicious campus controversy concerning the relationship of medicine and culture.

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Quill had an office and lab in Moos Tower, a research center on campus. He would spend mornings there, arriving around at eight o’clock after a stop at a Starbucks where he picked up coffee and a slice of banana or pumpkin bread, which he ate at his desk.

The next few hours were spent conferring with his senior lab assistants and reviewing on-going work. In the afternoons, he often left the lab to walk and think, sometimes returning to work into the evening on scientific papers. The lab’s work had been published in all the major medical journals concerned with spinal injuries.

Trane noted that Quill’s lab workers called him either “Barth”—not Bart—or “Dr. Quill.” He had a medical degree, but had never used it to practice; he also had a PhD in bio-medicine and had done advanced work in bio-robotics.

After leaving the lab on Friday, Quill had met with a professor of micro-surgery and a professor of radiology at the university medical center. That meeting had lasted until about three o’clock.

He’d been sighted by two medical students at Coffman Memorial Union around three o’clock, at the coffee bar; and may have been sighted by two neighbors, walking near his home around five o’clock, but that was uncertain.

According to Trane’s reports, Quill lived alone in a large redbrick house on East River Parkway, within long walking distance of his lab. In good weather, he often walked, and occasionally biked, to the university. If he’d actually been spotted by the neighbors, that was the last time he’d been seen alive by any witnesses Trane had been able to locate.

Quill’s estranged wife lived in a condo, owned by Quill, east of the University. At the time of his death, they were negotiating the terms of a divorce. There was a severe pre-nuptial agreement. Interestingly, the estranged wife would get little of Quill’s money, and no alimony at all, if they divorced while he was alive, but would inherit a substantial fortune if he “pre-deceased” her.

Virgil said, “Huh,” but noted that the wife had an iron-clad alibi—she was also an academic, and had been in Cleveland for a conference on the structure of natural languages. That didn’t mean she couldn’t have had an accomplice to do the killing.

The will—actually a revocable trust—dictated precisely what would happen with Quill’s estate when he died. Other than his estranged wife, nobody would get more or less if Quill were killed yesterday or thirty years later; but most would get it sooner if he were killed yesterday.

His daughter was an exception. Under the terms of the trust, she was to be paid sixty thousand dollars a year until she was thirty, the money intended to cover her education. After age thirty, she wouldn’t get another nickel, ever. Since she was already getting the payments from the trust, it made no financial difference to her when or whether Quill died.

Trane had gone to Verizon, Quill’s phone service provider, and had extracted a record of where the phone had been. The phone had been turned off around six o’clock on Friday night, but Verizon’s automated system had continued to track it until midnight. Quill had been around his house and neighborhood until about 9:30, when he’d driven to an area known as Dinkytown. He’d left his car in a private parking lot and never gone back to it.

After leaving the car, he’d wandered around on foot, with no protracted stops. Then the phone traced a walk across the campus and across a footbridge over the Mississippi.

At midnight, the phone had been turned back on, in the library—but then, ten minutes later, again outside the library, it had disappeared altogether. At six o’clock the next morning, it popped up again, on the footbridge between the east and west banks of the Mississippi. A Google search had been made on Starbucks, perhaps to check opening times. The phone then was carried to the library, which didn’t open until eight, had been turned off again at the library, was tracked for a few more minutes, and then disappeared again. It hadn’t yet reappeared on Verizon’s records, or been found.

“You’re telling me that he was killed Saturday morning, before the library opened. He must’ve had a key to the outside doors, to get up to his carrel,” Virgil said to Trane.

She turned from her computer. “He had a key, no question about that,” Trane said. “We don’t know who gave it to him. Of course, it’s possible that somebody with a key let him in. I talked to an assistant at the library, who said she saw him once, very shortly after the library opened, coming out of his carrel. Not to say that he couldn’t have been waiting outside and got in the minute it opened, but she had the impression that he might have slept in the library. Doesn’t know for sure. I originally thought he must’ve been killed after six-fifteen, the last time we can locate his phone, but now…”

She pressed a hand to the side of her face, thinking about it, and Vigil asked, “What?”

“I keep reminding myself, I know where the phone was,” Trane said. “I’m not a hundred percent sure where Quill was—that he was with the phone. The phone wasn’t with the body and neither were the computer or his keys. We know he kept his house and office keys on his car key-fob. He was driving a BMW that night — the BMW that we found in the parking lot.”

“If Verizon can track phones when they’re turned off…”

“They can, if the battery isn’t pulled…”

“…then what happened when it disappeared? He took the battery out?”

“That would be one way, but there are a couple of others. You can buy cases that shield phones from electromagnetic radiation. Maybe he had one.”

“Or the killer did,” Virgil said.

“Yup. Or the killer did. It’s possible he was killed at midnight and the subsequent tracks were the killer. It’s also possible that Quill had a phone shield. Met somebody at the library, dropped his phone in a shielded case so he couldn’t be tracked, spent the night somewhere—maybe a woman?—then went back to the library the next morning and was killed then. None of his lab associates ever saw a shielding case. If he was deliberately shielding his phone at times, he might have kept it a secret. The Verizon records don’t show any previous instances of shielding, though.”

“Then if the phone was shielded, it was mostly likely the killer who did it,” Virgil said.

“You could make that argument. If that’s right, then Quill was mostly likely killed at midnight. But then, the killer would have had to have had Quill’s phone code, because it popped up again the next morning.”

“All this only applies if Quill’s phone had an access code, or maybe a fingerprint code…”

“He did have a code and he kept it secret,” Trane said. “We know that from his wives…and he hadn’t changed phones since the second divorce.”

“If he kept it secret from his wives, is it possible he was having affairs?” Virgil asked. “Visiting hookers?”

“It’s possible and I’ve asked that question,” Trane said. “Nobody knows of that kind of history. He apparently was sexually straight, his wives agreed that he was always sexually active, and even a little rough, but he wasn’t driven by sex. He was driven by his research.”

“Rough? How rough? Violent?” Virgil asked.

She shook her head. “Nothing like that. Muscle-y. He moved them around enough that they sometimes had bruises—but none of them said they didn’t like it.”

“He was a strong guy, then?”

“Not a body-builder or a weight lifter, but three times a week at the gym, doing a full circuit, working hard at it. He owned a Peloton bike, it’s at his house, and Peloton records show he worked out almost every day, for exactly half an hour, but heavily. He was in good shape. No. He was in great shape.”

“Yet no signs that he resisted the killer?”

“The killer hit him from behind,” Trane said. “He never saw it coming.”

The murder weapon was unknown. People who’d spoken to Quill at his library carrel said Quill kept a large and powerful laptop computer there. The computer was missing, but Trane had learned from credit card records that Quill had spent more than twelve thousand dollars on a high-end laptop, a Dreambook Power P87 the year before.

She’d found a similar laptop with an identical case and the medical examiner had confirmed that a corner of the laptop could have done the damage to Quill’s skull—but Trane didn’t have the actual laptop, so that was also uncertain.

Virgil asked Trane, “Is it possible that there was something on his computer or phone that somebody was desperate to get?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? I’ve asked the question, but nobody can think of what it might be. He was a research scientist, but not a loner. There are extensive notes on everything done in the lab. This laptop…we know Quill wasn’t a gamer, he didn’t play video games. This thing had fast processors and a lot of storage, and would work well for virtual reality work. His top assistant said you might use it to display and manipulate MRI images, but he didn’t know why Quill would try to hide that, why he’d be doing it in a study carrel. They have plenty of computer power in the lab. Still…he had a huge amount of power there. He must’ve been using it for something.”

“Maybe he screwed something up, with a patient, and wanted to keep the images where only he could see them.”

“That had occurred to me, too. There is a lawsuit involving one of his patients, a suicide, but I don’t see anything there. Virgil, this is something I’ve been struggling with, thinking he might have a secret life of some kind—but all of his work is very public. I mean, it’s all done in teams. When surgery is involved, he doesn’t do it, a team of surgeons does it. I cannot, for the life of me, find anything in his professional life that he’d want to hide.”

“Okay.”

“One other thing: that computer is a fairly rare thing. I’ve been watching the local Craigslist and eBay and I’ve been Googling ‘for sales’, and the computer hasn’t shown up on any of that. It could be in the river.”

Virgil finished taking notes at three o’clock. Trane had been coming and going while he worked and when he kicked back from the computer, she was coming in the door with a paper cup of coffee.

“Finished?”

“Not really. I need to think about it all. You get any…vibrations…from anyone?”

“I got vibrations from a lot of people. Quill was highly respected but not much liked,” Trane said. “A couple of people hinted that he wasn’t particularly generous with credit for scientific papers. That’s a big deal at job-hunting time, for young scientists. His ex-wives didn’t like him. I asked why, and they said he was cold, mean, arrogant. Everything but violent. He had a child with his first wife, a daughter, who also didn’t like him much, although he supported her and his first wife quite adequately for more than twenty years until his death. His daughter goes to St. Thomas. She’s pretty much a slacker…a C-to-B student, though her mother says she’s bright enough. She doesn’t want to work, that’s all. Doesn’t want to work, ever.”

“Does she inherit anything? Outside that trust?”

“Nope. She gets a trust fund payout until she’s thirty, enough to pay college tuition through a PhD, if that’s what she wants, and to eat and live in a decent apartment. Then it ends. She gets nothing more in the will. Of course, if he’d lived, he could have changed that.”

“How old is she now?” Virgil asked.

“Nineteen. I interviewed her. She wasn’t too upset about him getting killed,” Trane said. “He wasn’t present as a father —only his money was. I gotta say, my impression was that she’s way too lazy to actually kill somebody, and she’s got a solid alibi for the whole time period when Quill was killed.”

“Quill seems to have been successful with women, on some level? Girlfriends? Jealousy?

“Not finding it. Hasn’t dated recently, as far as I’ve been able to determine, but…maybe. I’m still looking. Nobody’s come forward. His wife and his exes say he was incredibly smart, which was why they were attracted…and of course, he had family money. Quite a bit of it. Money’s often attractive in a man.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve had to rely on my good looks and personal charm,” Virgil said.

She gave him a mild stink-eye, unsure whether he was joking or not and Virgil said, “You’ve got to get used to my sense of humor.”

She said, “I talked to Lucas. He said you weren’t a terrible guy, most of the time. Nothing like Hitler, anyway. I was supposed to remind you to keep your hands off his daughter.”

“That’s a Davenport joke,” Virgil said.

“I got the impression that it was a ninety-percent joke and a ten percent death threat,” Trane said.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” Virgil said. “So. In five hundred words or less, tell me what you’ve figured out.”

“Won’t take five hundred words. He was killed in the carrel. He must’ve had some trust in the killer, because he turned his back on him, in a close space—the killer almost had to be inside the carrel with him. If it was a ‘him.’ It might not have been, because the carrel would be crowded for two males. If the killer is a ‘her,’ she’s strong. I’ve tried lifting a similar laptop over my head, quickly, and then swinging it down hard enough to kill. I can do it, but: twelve pounds, overhead, accelerating, chopping down and doing it fast enough that Quill didn’t see it coming…it’s harder than you’d think.”

“Okay.”

“The autopsy gave me nothing more than the cause of death. He had no alcohol or any trace of drugs in his body. Nothing under his fingernails or on his clothes, and no reason there should be, he obviously didn’t resist. No DNA.”

“Okay.” Virgil scrolled down the computer screen, tapped the screen: “You’ve got all these NCIC files on a guy named Boyd Nash. What’s that about?”

“Nash is a…I guess a scientist would say he’s a dirtbag. I don’t understand all the details, but he’s some kind of scientific predator and he had some contact with Quill.”

“Predator?”

“Yeah. He looks for new research that he can get some details on, then he goes to this law firm that cooperates with him… Conspires with him, I’d say. Anyway—give me some rope here, because I don’t entirely understand it—they find a low-level graduate student or technician who knows something about the field that the research comes from, and they write up a description of the work and then they file for a patent. When the original company or laboratory tries to use their own research, the law firm files for a patent violation. It’s complicated and technical enough that the courts don’t usually understand what’s going on. Sometimes Nash wins, and sometimes he loses, but if he wins, he can get a substantial settlement, because fighting the court judgment can cost more than the settlement. The law firm gets a third, of course, but Nash can still get out with tens of thousands of dollars.”

“In other words, he steals research, pretends it’s his, or belongs to somebody he’s working with, and uses a court decision to extort a settlement from the good guys.”

“That’s about it,” Trane said.

“You eliminated Nash as a suspect?”

“Not completely, but there seemed no better leads,” Trane said. “The night that Quill disappeared, Nash was in Rochester. He checked into the DoubleTree Hotel for a convention…it’s in the notes, something like the American Institute for Medical Technology. I talked to him, he gave me names of people he spoke to there, both that night and on Saturday and Sunday when the convention ended. I called those people and it all checked out. He had American Express receipts for the hotel for both nights, Friday and Saturday.”

“It’s only about an hour and a half each way. He could have been down there until ten o’clock…”

“I know. I worked through all that,” Trane said. “It seems unlikely—it’s the kind of convention he’d go to, for the contacts he needs, and why would he think he’d need an elaborate alibi? He couldn’t have known Quill would be at the library at midnight. And how would he have gotten in the library? Lot of moving parts, there.”

“All right. Now—tell me about this big feud that Quill was involved in.”

“Oh my God,” Trane said. “You ever get in one of those situation where somebody’s yelling at you and you feel like your sinuses are getting jammed up by the sheer bullshit?”

“All the time. That’s my life story,” Virgil said. “What’s going on?”

A woman named Katherine Green, Trane said, a newly tenured professor in the University’s Department of Cultural Science, had written a well-received book entitled Cultural Medicine, which argued that medicine which worked well in the West might not work so well in other cultures, or in what she called “micro-cultures.”

In a particularly controversial passage, she’d suggested that families in Marin County, California, and Clark County, Washington, had developed their own micro-cultures that rejected the Western imperative on childhood vaccination. The Marin and Clark County micro-cultures’ emphasis on a naturally robust lifestyle would likely prove as effective as vaccination, Green said—and possibly more effective.

“That started people screaming,” Trane said. “Because it seemed to offer support for the anti-vaccination movement, which mostly consists of uncertified crazies.”

The book made it on the New York Times’ bestseller list and Green, after making a three-week tour in support of sales, returned to home ground at the university, where she was invited to give a lecture at the Coffman Theater.

“I’ve seen a video,” Trane said. “About halfway through, several people started booing. That started a bunch of arguments and people in the audience started pushing each other around. There were a couple of campus cops there and they got everybody back in their seats, and Green managed to finish the lecture.

“Then Quill got up and said her book was ignorant, unscholarly, uninformed and a bunch of other stuff. Green has a reputation herself—she likes to fight. It seems like she lives for controversy. She called him rude, culturally illiterate, a racist, and a few other things, and he called her a silly twat. Yelled it, actually,” Trane said. “That set things off again, and they had to call more cops, because it got out of hand—a small riot. A graduate student got hauled away to jail and was charged with assault because he hit another guy with a chair.”

“Did it break, like they do on TV?” Virgil asked.

“No,” Trane said, a trifle impatiently. “Anyway, Green tried to get Quill fired for sexism, filed against him with the Title IX committee—the twat word. Quill insisted that he’d called her a silly twit, not twat. He was lying, because he did call her a twat. It was plain as day on the video, but there was no way the U was going to fire or even censure Quill. He was way too important.”

A week or so after Green’s lecture, Quill and three professors from the medical school held an open seminar at the Mayo Auditorium to discuss the wrong-headedness of Green’s book and to question the very existence of the Department of Cultural Science, which, according to flyers posted in the medical school, advocated “Witchcraft vs. Medicine.”

“Well, you can guess what happened—Green showed up with staff and students from Cultural Science and they had another riot on their hands,” Trane said. “It’s been pretty much open warfare since then. Quill proposed eliminating the Cultural Science department entirely—it’s hard to get rid of tenured professors, but if their department is abolished…well, they don’t have jobs.”

“Then everybody in Cultural Science is a suspect.”

“Yeah,” Trane said. “That would be eighteen faculty and graduate assistants and support staff, and a large but unknown number of students.”

“Sounds like you’ve come down on Quill’s side of this thing,” Virgil ventured. “You know, intellectually.”

“Of course I have,” Trane said. “I wouldn’t say it on television, but the Green people, the Cultural Science people, are a bunch of Froot Loops.”

Virgil leaned back in his chair, put his boots up on the desk and said, “I don’t know. I feel the great karmic twang might favor Green-ites. I’ll start there, find this Katherine Green.”

Trane rubbed her face with both hands: “Karmic twang. Oh my God, he said karmic twang. You could probably go undercover with Cultural Science. They’d love that T-shirt.”

From the other side of the cubicle wall, the cop who’d now finished his tuna fish sandwich said, “I thought he said karmic wang.”

Trane said, “Shut up,” and back to Virgil, “I’ll get you a phone number.”

“I’d like to go through Quill’s house this evening, if it’s not sealed up,” Virgil said.

“I’ve got the key, I can meet you there after dinner…like seven o’clock?”

“That’s good.”

Tuna Fish said, “You oughta tell karmic wang that Green is quite the hottie.”

Trane again said, “Shut up,” and to Virgil, “I guess she is, but that’s irrelevant.”

Tuna Fish said, “No, it’s not. The hottest sex is always between two people who don’t like each other. That’s why feminists date drug dealers or drummers at some point in their lives. In your situation, you got the handsome, brilliant, rich and probably horny divorcing professor on one side, and the best-selling academic unmarried hottie on the other. You even look at her boobies? Think there might be sparks?”

“Thank you, Dr. Freud.”

“You’re welcome. It’s better than anything you’ve come up with,” Tuna Fish said.

Virgil: “Give me the number for Green.”

Trane gave him the number and asked, “How are we going to do this? You and me?”

“How about if I work it as kind of like…an assistant, or an intern,” Virgil suggested. “On my own, because there’s no point in both of us standing around looking at the same guy. You do your thing and I do mine and we meet every morning and night until we get the killer.”

“I’m happy you’re so…sanguine…about getting him. We had a fifty-percent clearance rate on murders last year. If we don’t do better, Knox’s going to be the new lieutenant guarding the landfill. I’ll be the sergeant in charge of the sloppy wet diaper service dump.”

“Aw, we’ll get him,” Virgil said. “If we don’t, I’ve got an extra pair of barn boots I can give you. You know, for the diapers.

__________________________________

From Bloody Genius by John Sanford. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur. Copyright © 2019 by John Sanford.




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