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The Corona Borealis Murder Case
Dr. Povitch should have died long ago. His heart problems left him confined within death watches for months last year, and now, although miraculously recovered, his condition remained questionable. Father Gallagher, after years of antipathy with Povitch, invited him to St. Bart's rectory for a dinner of reconciliation. Matthias Jones worried whether Gallagher's temper might break through his priestly demeanor and rattle Povitch's fragile heart.
Jones slowed his jeep at the narrow road leading up Mount Polaris. A chained gate was open and a single lane was plowed, producing lumpy snow banks from last night's storm. The birch branches hung heavy with swollen snow and the pines stooped toward the road. He had always wanted to look into deep space from the large telescope atop the mountain, north of Hamilton, but did not think he would have to drive up Mount Polaris in the aftermath of the biggest storm to pelt the area in ten years. Fred Dempsey had told him the clear, cold night would provide an excellent viewing opportunity.
He shifted his jeep into four-wheel drive and turned to Duff. " So, how did you end up in Prince William on a Tuesday night, Duff?"
Duff said nothing for a few moments and stared out the window. " I was suppose to meet a girl."
Jones looked in the rear mirror, back toward the street gate as he moved up the incline. " Women, they can make ya or break ya. Especially if you don't have a car. "
" Yes, coach."
" Let's face it, Duffy, you were leading all scorers last year. But now something's affected your play."
" I have a lot on my mind ... Dr. Povitch says I need to focus."
The snow banks were highlighted by the headlights. He swerved the jeep slightly but easily negotiated the steep road. " You and the doctor are close. I heard that. He's your mentor."
" He is. And advisor. He knows my story."
" Yeah, but what does he know about outside jump shots?"
The freckled face Duff smiled, but continued to look out the jeep window.
" I've never been up here in a after a big storm. You sure it's cleared at the top?"
" I guess they plowed the top. I called Campus Security to unlock the gate. Bucky, you know Bucky."
" Campus insecurity." Duff balanced his chin on his palm and stared silently into the trees lining the snow skimmed, outside guardrail. Jones smiled. Duff was edgy ever since he got in the jeep at the Hannibal Mall in Prince William. Jones held the wheel with one hand and kept his right hand on the stick shift, as if his removing his hand from the lever might cause some great tactical problem. " Bucky, has his own ideas about police work. We have to keep reminding him that he's in charge of the campus security and not a real cop."
Duff stretched his long legs. " He gave me a parking ticket two weeks ago."
Jones shifted again, moved the jeep around the turn and started up a new hill. " You don't own a car."
" Well, I was driving Bernie Gauzinski's Toyota. I parked it like everyone does next to the gym."
" So, what was the problem?"
" I'm still trying to figure that one out. Bucky steps out of his little brown Campus Security car, pad flipped over, and pen in hand."
Jones nodded and laughed. " I can see the whole thing."
" He waddles over in his uniform and he tells me I'm in violation of section twenty-six of the campus parking code. He said if I didn't move the car he was going to have it towed off campus."
" Bucky had Dean Kent's car towed. Of course he didn't know it was Dean Kent's car," said Jones, shifting again. " Never mind Nigel is also the President of Hamilton College has the license plate marked DEAN. So what happened with the Toyota?"
Duff pointed to Jones' blue parking sticker on the driver's side of the windshield. " I showed him Bernie's sticker. It's good through the academic year."
" So, what was the problem?"
" He bends down on his hands and knees and starts crawling around on the pavement. He told me I was straddling the handicapped space. I guess was: by a couple of inches. So, he moves his pen around that little pad of his and rips off the sheet. Twenty-five bucks!"
Jones round the corner for the final hill to the observatory. " Oh, come on."
Jones winced as he thought of traveling to an auto body in Prince William with Nigel and finding Nigel's Mercedes stuck between two rusted Ford Pintos from the 1970's. " Duff, let me speak with Dean Kent. See if I can clear this ticket thing up."
" I think Bucky went a little overboard," said Duff, pausing and looking at Jones. " Coach, I'm sorry."
" For what?"
They moved along the snow bank now covering the guardrail, high above the valley. " Things are bothering me."
Jones shifted again. The narrow plowed road leveled in the headlights.
" You want to talk about it?"
Duff shook his head. " I will."
" Okay." Jones tried to change the subject as he moved through the plowed snow. " Dr. Povitch looked healthy when I talked to him at the last game ... when he invited me up here."
" Dr. Povitch is lucky to be alive," said Duff.
" He's been through it all, that's for sure."
" Everybody thought he was a goner last year when he was in that hospital in Boston."
" He was in there for months, wasn't he?"
" When he came out of it, Professor McIntire was shocked."
" Oh, yes, his art professor friend. He's got a good twenty years on her." Jones flicked the high beams as the road darkened through a birch thicket ahead and the jeep's large tires crunched the snow tracks.
" Thirty-four years old and he's sixty-two. I heard she likes to spend his money," said Duff. " I guess Dr. Povitch's wife had some bucks and his college texts are popular."
Jones laughed and zipped through the woods. " You know all the dirt on campus, Duff. You ought to start a gossip column for the school paper. Maybe start with the way this telescope was refurbished. But I guess that feud was smoothed over tonight. I'm very surprised Father Gallagher asked Povitch over to the rectory."
" They hate each other," said Duff.
" The money from the Elton Foundation set to refurbish St. Barts." A tawny fox turned in the road ahead, his eyes glowing in the headlight's glare. He ran between the snowy spruce and disappeared into the darkness. " I can't believe Povitch took on Father like he did. Every cent went into this telescope. Elton's governing board leans toward churches and non-profit endeavors. Povitch convinced him of the observatory's merit."
" Well, it might be more complicated than that. What did Father Gallagher say to him?"
" Oh, you don't want to know what exactly Father said," replied Jones.
" I thought he was a priest."
" He is, but he don't ever back him into a corner. He used to box and was a football player at Notre Dame. Without the Elton money he was left to raise six hundred thousand for the church renovation himself." Jones gazed across the Hamilton lights twinkling across the valley. The brighter Prince William glare unfolded beyond the Devonshire Hills to the west. " I would have liked to have been fly on the wall at that rectory tonight."
Duff tapped his fingers on his thigh and looked out the side window. Jones shifted along a cable fence, supported by cement posts, half buried in the snow near the cliffs. He made a turn into a long straight wooded stretch. In the field beyond, two cars spewed smoky exhaust into the cold night air and cast their headlights across a chained gate.
" Oh, no," said Jones.
" What?" Duff turned. " Bucky Driscoll, why is he still up here?"
Fred Dempsey's maroon minivan was to the left and parked diagonally across the mountain road was a beige Ford Escort. The door was marked in bold green letters: CAMPUS SECURITY. " Oh, he's probably supposed to unlock the gate for us. "
Jones pulled alongside the minivan and rolled down his window. He was about to lean over to talk to Fred when the rotund Bucky, in his blue and gold security uniform, swung a huge sledge hammer through the air. " What the hell is he doing?"
" They don't call him Campus Insecurity for nothing," said Duff.˙Bucky, his glasses slipping down his nose and his foggy breath billowing into the night, grunted and groaned as he bashed the gate lock. His heavy winter coat was draped over the Escort's hood. " Hasn't he ever heard of a key?"
" Matthias, welcome to Mount Polaris," said Fred Dempsey, smiling from the minivan.
Jones stared at Bucky. He turned to the dark haired Dempsey. " Fred, don't you have a key?"
" The Fletchers want Campus Security to have the keys."
A sudden crunch and the sound of glass breaking sent Jones from the jeep. Duff followed him around the minivan. Fred Dempsey looked in astonishment as Bucky pulled the sledge hammer out of the van's smashed headlight. " Bucky, you just hit my headlight!"
" Hey, I ain't one to give up. I'm just glad to be alive to live another day." Bucky lifted the hammer into the air again and everyone moved back. He growled like a distraught bear, swung again, but missed the lock and fell backward into the snow. Sitting in the icy road he pointed at the lock. " You stupid lock ..."
Jones rushed forward and rubbed his hands in the cold. " Bucky, where's your key?"
Still sitting in the snow, Bucky shook his head and pulled a cluster of keys from his coat pocket. He pushed his wire rim glasses back up his nose and with his mouth hanging open, stared at the keys. " Nope, she ain't here. Gut em all numbered."
Jones zipped his parka. He tightened his face in the cold as he looked at Duff and Fred. Fred alternated glances between the broken headlight and Bucky.
" Why don't we all get back in our cars? Dr. Povitch will be along shortly. He should have a key."
" Nope. I took it away," said Bucky, using the hammer handle to leverage himself up. He grabbed both sides of his belt and tried to yank his trousers higher over his stomach. " You see, Dr. Povitch having that key would be a violation of school policy."
Jones' fingers were numb and his nose stung. " I'm going back in the jeep."
" Come on in the minivan, Matthias" said Fred.
Fred gawked at the broken headlight as he passed and slid the van's side door. Big band music shook the speakers as Jones and Duff crawled inside the warmer air. Jones slid the door shut. Once Fred was back inside, he leaned forward and squinted. " What a loose cannon."
" Nigel hired him. Apparently he had a good record at some school in New York."
" Yeah, Ding Dong School," said Jones. Bucky, the back of his pants now soaked, returned from his car with a hack saw. " What is he going to do now?"
Duff leaned forward. " Coach, he's going to try and cut that thick chain with a little hack saw."
Jones pushed the illuminated dial on his watch. " Mercy ... Fred, why don't we just walk the rest of the way?"
" Another mile, Matthias. If it were summer I would."
Jones closed his eyes for a second and reclined in the seat. He thought about the open chain on the bottom gate. " Wait a minute, didn't he open the bottom chain? Wouldn't they have the same lock?"
" That would be logical, wouldn't it? " asked Fred. Jones nodded.
" Except Bucky changed them last week for security purposes."
" And he lost the key," said Jones, looking out at Bucky, hacking furiously at the chain.
" No, he lost the key to the old lock." Fred turned down the radio as the music ended and an AM station out of Portland, Maine began a news broadcast. He pushed the FM switch and twisted the dial for the campus station. " Nice van, Fred."
" You like the van?"
Jones checked the mileage. " Is that a Two-hundred and seventy-fifty thousand? Van looks newer."
" No, no, you're looking at the elapsed mileage. Two hundred and seventy-five. I always push it to zero when I fill up on gas, so if something goes wrong with the gauge, as it has on occasion, I know how many miles I have left before I'm running on fumes. But I did cross the hundred and forty thousand mark. This van owes me nothing. I change the oil frequently."
" That's the ticket," said Jones, peering out the side mirror. Headlights shined down the cleared snow road. Jones checked his watch. It was seven thirty-two.
" Good, maybe this is Dr. Povitch."
The car switched to low beams. Duff turned quickly. " It's Sergi's BMW."
" Sergi?" Jones smiled, glancing briefly at Bucky still hacking the thick chain out front. " Unless, the doctor has a key, I don't know why we're all so enthusiastic. Bucky's still sawing out there. We could be here all night."
The gray BMW slowed and stopped behind Jones' jeep. Jones slid open the van door and hopped into the frigid air. The BMW's driver's window electronically moved downward and the bearded Dr. Povitch, bushy brows, blending into his fur lined hat, peered up at Jones.
" Problem, Matthias?" he asked tersely.
Jones moved closer to his puffy brown eyes. Povitch was usually a congenial man with a good sense of humor, but he did not seem happy now.
" The security guy, Bucky. He ... he lost the key to the gate."
Povitch rolled his eyes, adjusted his cashmere scarf and put on his brown leather gloves. Then he opened the door, slowly swung his body around and stuck his feet into the snow. He grabbed the edges of the door and lifted himself up. Jones was not sure whether he would insult Povitch by taking his arm, but readied himself in case the doctor fell. Povitch shuffled in slow motion across the snow to the front gate where Bucky was still sawing wildly and swearing openly. Jones could see no progress as he cut the cold metal.
" Excuse me, Mr. Driscoll," said Povitch.
Steam moved upward from the elongated sweaty stretch along Bucky's back. In the cold air, he curled his lip upward and breathed heavily. " Huh?"
" I believe you misplaced the key."
" Don't you worry, Dr. Povitch. I've had years of experience in security."
Jones rolled his eyes and jumped up and down to negate the effects of the cold. He had coached football games in colder weather than this, but at least he could run up and down the sidelines.
" Your hat," said Povitch.
" Oh, I don't need no hat. The cold and me, we're good buddies," said Bucky and with saw in hand, faced the thick chain again.
" No, the other day in my office. You taped the key to the visor of your hat."
Jones looked to his right and retrieved Bucky's hat from the car hood. Under the visor was a long piece of masking tape. The key was stuck to the adhesive. When he peeled it back. Bucky, still looking confused, held the hacksaw in his hand. Jones pulled the key from the tape and handed it to him as Povitch slowly returned to his car.
" No wonder I couldn't find it."
Jones pinched the bridge of his nose. Bucky walked back to the chain and was about to place the key in the lock, but he dropped it in the snow. He bent over and scoured the ground. Jones threw his hands up in the air and then stomped across the snow, almost slipping. He spotted the key near the gatepost, bent down and pinched it between his fingers.
" You have an eagle eye, Coach. An eagle eye."
Jones thrust the key into the lock and popped it. He and Duff dragged the chain back across the road, but Bucky gripped the links and ran through the snow. Jones fought to maintain his balance. With the gate now open, he moved precariously to Povitch's car and the electric window came down again. He handed the key to the doctor. " Here, I think you'd better hold on to this."
" Hold it! Hold it!" called Bucky as he ran from the gate. " Let's not violate school policy. I need that key! I don't want to have to file a negative report."
" Bucky, how about we let the doctor keep the key?"
" But we're out of compliance!"
Povitch's window went up and he drove forward over the snow pack. Jones followed Duff into the jeep as Fred Dempsey started forward, one headlight now illuminating the road ahead. Jones leaned out the jeep window. Bucky stood with his hands on his hips. " Tough break, Buck. You'll just have to wing it."
He shifted as Bucky kept ranting at the gate. In the side mirror he kicked the snow near his car. " Bucky Driscoll ..."
An intricate mass of brilliant stars stretched across the cold winter sky. Jones and Duff walked through the snow toward the huge white dome, housing the college telescope, set within a long cinder block building.
" Where's the big dipper?" asked Jones. He gazed up again and followed Duff's extended arm upward. The familiar group sparkled just above the Devonshire Hills and the Fletcher estate. " I've always wanted to learn the constellations. What about that series of bright stars?"
" Orion, watched by Cassiopeia."
Jones scanned the sky as they reached the door. " Orion's the one with the stars in his belt, right?"
" What?" Duff opened the metal door.
" Duff, I'm trying to learn something. You're out to lunch tonight. " The warmer air inside filtered out the door. " How do you know which stars are hot, which ones are cooler ..."
" You can tell the temperature of each of those stars by the color. The blue ones are hotter."
Jones followed him inside the white cinder block foyer. Hanging metal shade lights blazed from the high-galvanized ceiling and a group of offices faced the long white telescope. Povitch clutched the metal frame of an open elevator and slowly rose fifteen feet to the telescope platform.
Jones banged his boots on the cement. " You all right, Doctor?"
Povitch was unusually pale and breathed heavily. Jones feared the confrontation with Gallagher and the confusion at the gate might have shaken him. " I'm afraid I'm just a little fatigued this evening."
" We can cancel."
" No, I'm all right, I am." He paused, stepped onto the metal grid and trekked to the black vinyl observation chairs at the telescope's base. He carefully lowered himself into the front chair. Once settled, he lifted an adjacent long clipboard into his lap.
" Duff, is he all right?" Jones asked in a lower voice.
" You know how he's been sick, Coach. I sure this is just the effects of his disease. He really has been sick."
" So, Matthias," said Fred Dempsey, emerging from the first side office in his khaki chinos and blue button down shirt. " As Dr. Povitch's assistant, I must pose the official question to all our visitors. Have you ever looked at the stars?"
" I've seen the stars but not through a telescope like this."
" Completely refurbished. Big bucks," said Fred loud enough for Povitch to turn.
As Fred crossed the room toward the spiral staircase. Duff leaned over and whispered. " That's taking away a lot of stain glass windows at St. Barts."˙" That reminds me," said Povitch from above. " You were supposed to finish the report on the expenditures here, Fred."
" I'm aware of that, Sergi."
" Procrastination will be your downfall, Fred."
Povitch was still angry, perhaps from his dinner with Gallagher. Jones looked the lighted computer screen and books scattered around Fred's office.
" Come on, coach."
Duff motioned Jones to the metal staircase next to the elevator. Jones climbed behind his lanky player. When Jones reached platform Povitch sat with his eyes closed. " You are all right, Doctor?"
" Yes, fine," said Povitch, opening his glassy eyes. He leaned back in the contoured chair near the telescope's eyepiece. " Just a little indigestion."
" Shall I tell Father Gallagher he needs to send for takeout next time?"
" There will be no next time. That man is about as much a priest as I am."
Fred appeared at the top of the metal staircase. He raised his brows and shrugged his shoulders. " Well, at least we have a clear night."
" About time," said Povitch, squirming slowly in the chair. He rubbed his shoulder. " Duff, prepare for observation."
" Yes, Doctor."
" Then I wish to speak privately with you. " Povitch swiveled in the chair and perked up. He gazed down as if he were in the lecture hall. " This telescope is capable of looking halfway across the galaxy. Most people don't realize that we work all night, fight the storms, and progress is measure in centimeters not kilometers. Meticulous observation, gentlemen. Right, Fred?"
" Can you really see the craters on the moon?" asked Jones.
Povitch smiled. " Of course, Matthias. But you need the moon in the sky."
" Oh." Jones turned as the outside door slammed and Bucky coughed.
" What is your specialty, Doctor? You know, an area of expertise."
" Cepheid Variables."
" Sounds like something swimming under Hamilton Bay," said Jones.
" Actually, we are talking about quickly orbiting, high gravity stars that output tremendous energy at periodic rates. I am fond of measuring those rates."
" Bursts of energy?" asked Jones.
" Yes, like lighthouse beacons. Now my contention has always been-"
" Hey, fellas, I put that gate out of action!" shouted Bucky as he dragged snow across the floor.
Povitch seemed annoyed, watched Bucky cross the room and then looked back at Jones and Duff. " As I was saying. My thesis over the years has been variable, no pun intended. If we extrapolate the data-"
" You wanna know how I did it?" asked Bucky, now wearing a thick knitted cap and heavy wool coat inside.
" Bucky, Dr. Povitch is trying to tell us about Cepheid Variables," said Jones.
" I ran it down. Got in my car, revved up the engine and got mad at it. Damage wasn't too bad," he said, looking at Fred.
" I still have one headlight," said Fred as the phone rang. " Excuse me." He quickly moved to the wall phone at the far end of the grid and picked up the receiver. " Fred Dempsey. Yes. He did? Tibbets or Grunyn? Okay, great. Okay, I'll call you back."
Jones studied the telescope. " You were saying, Doctor."
Bucky walked in a complete circle below them. " Anybody seen the head? I've got to go so bad I can taste it."
Fred closed his eyes and pointed toward the entryway. Bucky lumbered across the observatory and rounded the corner. With a grin Jones stared at the entryway. The he turned toward Fred. " Tell me this guy really doesn't work for the college."
" He does." His smile fell when he looked at Povitch.
Gears and wheels turned as Povitch adjusted something in the telescope mechanism.
" Come over here, Duff," said Povitch. " If you gentlemen will excuse us for a few minutes. I apologize."˙" Writing and research. Someone has to do it. Let me show you around here while those two kibitz."
Jones glanced upward again. Povitch briefly held Duff's wrist. " They seem to have a close relationship. More than just a professor and student. Povitch talks like he's Duff's father."
Fred pushed his lips together and looked down. " Without Sergi, well, Duff would have lost everything."
" What do you mean?"
Fred's pulled Jones into the cinder block office. " You're his coach. I shouldn't spread stories but you should know the truth."
" Know what?"
" What?" Jones roared. He peered around the corner and stared his auburn haired player. " I don't believe it. Where did you hear something outrageous like that? Rumors can be deadly, Fred."
" Sergi told me himself. If it wasn't for Sergi helping that kid, he probably would have died.
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