Harper was seated at the very back of the small café, his hands wrapped around a mug of steaming coffee, as Josh came through the entrance out of the rain. He caught the professor’s eye as he pulled his hat from his head to let the excess rain dribble to the floor. Josh nodded to him as he ordered a fresh coffee for himself and paid the cashier. Whatever was going on, the look in Dr. Harper’s eyes seemed to align with the sense of urgency in his voice on the phone just minutes earlier. His former teacher seemed simultaneously nervous and relieved as Josh made his way to the table in the busy shop. Uncommon Grounds was a popular draw for locals as well as a lot of the university crowd and the weather seemed to have brought in the usual and then some this morning.
As Josh sat at the table, he was unsure of what exactly must have transpired since he had last seen Dr. Harper, but apparently there had been something of significance overnight based on everything he had experienced so far this morning. He took a tentative sip of the coffee to test its temperature and waited for Harper to take the lead. They sat in silence for a minute or two, before Josh could stand it no longer and he spoke.
“You said on the phone you were not really OK. What’s going on, Doc?”
“It would seem our friends from Europe have just upped the ante on that manuscript and map you stumbled across.”
“Think it is safe to talk here, Doc?”
“For now. After what happened at the university last night, I am hoping a very public location is a better bet. Plus, there is enough of a background buzz here to cover our conversation. These people seem way too intent on their own little worlds to be bothered with us. But all the same, keep your voice low.”
“Sure. Guess you had better fill me in before my imagination creates something too wild.”
Harper took a long draw on his coffee and exhaled slowly before setting his mug aside and looking over the bustling crowd and out through the rain spattered windows of the café as if looking for any type of threat.
“Not to demean your imagination, Josh, as I realize it fuels your livelihood, but what I have to tell you, I am afraid may be beyond what even you might come up with.”
Josh felt a chill ripple through his body despite the warmth of the coffee and the growing humidity of the nearly packed coffee shop.
“I got a call from the campus police early this morning around 3 am. My office got broken into overnight.”
“No, no real damage to speak of, but it was obvious once they took a look and then called in the city cops that someone had been in there. Due to some new projects I have taken on in the last year, I had a silent alarm system set up on my office that the university was unaware of. Not to insult our campus security, but I wanted more professional police in the loop in case something like this occurred to protect artifacts and papers I have stored there that are irreplaceable. The system goes straight to the city cop shop just downtown.”
“So, why did they not nab whoever it was that broke in?”
“If it was the group from Europe, and at this point I have this strong feeling it was, then I am not surprised they circumvented detection. These guys are professionals in every sense of the word, if you get my meaning, Josh.”
Josh felt another and much stronger wave of dread and anxiety course through his body. He knew it was likely to be of little defense, but he took a long slug of his hot coffee to try and ward it off all the same.
“They were able to disable the alarm, so somehow they must have suspected some level of security that the university was not providing. Or, more likely, these guys are so good at what they do, they just routinely assume there will be some alarm system to deactivate.”
“OK. So if what you say is true, how did anyone know there was a break in and if the office was not trashed or even in some state of disarray, how do you know your office got searched?”
“Remember old Fred Dillard?”
“Vaguely, Doc. The security guard for the history building? I was sure he would have retired by now. He seemed ancient when I was a student.”
Harper smiled thinly at the comment, but his smile soon vanished as he continued.
“Fred was definitely getting up there in years, but he was in remarkably good shape for a man of his years. Lot of the younger guys he worked with had trouble keeping up with him.”
“You said was, Doc. Don’t tell me…”
Harper looked into Josh’s eyes and exhaled in sadness and frustration.
“Sorry, Josh, but Fred, I am afraid, was collateral damage from this escapade last night. The campus police found him just outside the building behind some shrubs near the west entrance. Fred was able to hit the panic button on his communication device before he died. That is what alerted the force to the building and that something was up. Otherwise, the break in would not have been discovered until I returned to my office.”
“I hate to even ask, but Fred…did they…”
“Hard to say at this point, Josh. Have to wait on the medical examiner I guess for an official cause of death. I can guess, but the police, both campus and local have not said anything to me. It would seem likely these men knew he had hit the panic button and made a hasty escape before everything lit up. Apparently, Fred must have stumbled across them during one of his rounds and they stashed his body in the bushes to make it look like he just collapsed outside. You know…old man just falls over type of thing. Pretty sure they had no idea how vital and healthy Fred actually was. In their rush to leave, they failed to relock my office door. It was the only office in the building that was unlocked, so you can see why they called me at oh dark thirty.”
“So you told the cops nothing was missing?”
“Yep. All my really valuable stuff was untouched. From an outsider’s perspective the office looks undisturbed.”
“But I am guessing you know better?”
“Despite the lack of any evidence that intruders were there, yeah…I could tell. There were little things that were rearranged. Nothing big, but with my office being as familiar to me as my home, it was noticeable. They were looking for something in particular and were trying to make it look as if no one had made a search…my theory anyway.”
“Not sure I am so keen on our lives being turned into something I might read in a novel, Doc.”
“Me either, Josh. Plus I am really feeling bad about putting Fred in the crosshairs of something he should have never been caught up in.”
“It’s not your fault Fred got killed, Doc.”
“Not directly. Not like I pulled the trigger or was the one who actually did whatever it was that ended Fred’s life, but I do feel responsible. For these guys to even come and search my office seems to indicate they have been watching us, Josh.”
Josh felt his heart sink and a lump of emotion rise in his throat as he considered his part in what had just happened…especially to Fred Dillard. The guilt and culpability hung on him deeply, but then another pulse of fear and distress filled his mind. Josh looked up at Dr. Harper.
“Am what I am thinking the next logical piece of this warped puzzle, Doc?”
“If you are assuming your house might be the next target since they struck out here, then yeah…I would say you are on track.”