When Jane pulled into the parking lot at Mendall High School the morning after her tremendous breakthrough, she was surprised to find Dexter's car was missing from the lot. He was usually one of the first to arrive in the mornings; according to him, he rarely slept more than an hour or two through the night. He must be running late.
She found her parking spot and collected her backpack from the passenger seat. Once inside, she stopped off at the teacher's lounge to check her inbox. A few late assignments, and a doctor's note as an excuse for absence. Nothing important.
She went to her classroom and began prepping for first period. She taught senior level physics, which was trivial for someone of her level of education, but she couldn't get a respectable job in her field. She was shunned long ago for her ridiculous research. Not so ridiculous anymore, she grinned.
The classroom filled with tired looking kids, all apparently dreading the day. After she called the roll she started to explain the experiment she had planned for them.
"Alright guys, we're going to be working with induced currents created by the movement of a magnetic field. Can anyone guess why this is important?"
"Electric motors?" one student replied.
"That's probably the most significant use, yes. Anyone else? Any other practical applications for this phenomenon?"
"Generating electricity? Like, enough to save for later use," another answered.
"Of course, energy storage is a great function, if you have a significant source of motion, like a rushing river you can dam up. Now, if everyone will turn to page 114 in your textbooks --"
The screeching of the intercom cut her off mid sentence.
"Ms. Tepho, would you come to the office, please? It's urgent."
"Sure, I'll be right there. Alright everyone, I want you to read from page 114 on to the end of the chapter while I'm gone. I don't have to remind a room full of exceptional seniors to behave themselves during a short absence of authority, right?"
There was a brief murmur of unenthusiastic consent from the small crowd, most of whom had already started reading. Her room was only a few yards off the main hallway near the front office, so she was there in an instant.
The receptionist, Linda, had a stark facade. She nodded toward two policemen standing in the waiting area.
"Can I help you, officers?"
"Jane Tepho?" the shortest of the two asked. He had a mustache and the beginnings of a potbelly.
"That's me. Is there a problem?"
The two uniformed men exchanged awkward glances.
"Do you know a ... Dexter Freeman?" the second asked, reading the name from his notebook.
Her heart stopped. Dexter?
"Yes, I do. Is he in trouble?"
"Ma'am, he's — he was found dead this morning at his home."
An intense ringing drowned out whatever he said after that. Her legs gave way, and the next thing she knew her eyes were fluttering open from one of the seats in the waiting area.
"Ms. Tepho, are you okay? You just fainted."
"I'm fine, fine — did you say ... Dexter? He's dead? How? What happened?"
"We're still trying to figure that out. It's an unusual situation. Can you come with us for a short while? The detective assigned to the case wants a word with you."
"I guess I can. Linda, can we get someone to cover my classes?"
"I've already got calls out for a substitute."
"You're the best. After you, officers."
They led her to their squad car which was parked idly on the curb out front of the school. She rode in the back, feeling like a prisoner whom they forget to handcuff. By their direction, she guessed they were taking her to the police station in the middle of the city.
"Can you tell me any more about what happened to my friend?"
"We really don't know much more ourselves, we were just told to come get you."
"I would put my money on something they found at the scene. I don't think I've ever seen Mansfield that pale," the second said, more to the first officer than to Jane.
By the time they arrived at the police station she had concocted countless situations in which they would need to talk to her, each more ludicrous than the last. She wished her mind didn't do that — she was never able to let her thoughts rest, to not overthink every detail of any situation in which she found herself. She often worried herself to death about things which she had absolutely no control over, and she hated it.
"Ms. Tepho? Hello?"
She snapped back, having zoned out while she followed the officers into the building. The man before her in the lobby was older, with salt and pepper hair and a wrinkled, stoney veneer.
"Detective Harry Mansfield.”
There was no handshake offered by the detective, no warmth of any sort. He might have been chiseled from an unforgiving piece of granite.
"I'm the lead investigator in the case of Dexter Freeman. I'd like to show you something."
Without another word he started down one of the side halls. She quickly followed, unsure of how to read the detective's rigid exterior.
He led her to a door with a smoked glass window built into the frame. On the opaque surface was a sign that read 'Forensics/Evidence Processing Department' in painted block letters. Through the door, Detective Mansfield nodded to a clerk sitting behind a thick bulletproof barrier, who responded by silently passing a plastic sheath containing a single piece of worn out, dirty white paper through a thin slot between the barrier and the desk. The detective took it and approached another door off of the waiting area, beckoning Jane to follow. Inside the small windowless room was a folding table with several stainless steel chairs placed around it.
This must be a room set aside for examining and discussing pieces of evidence.
Or for interrogation.
The detective sat in one of the chairs and gestured for Jane to do the same. Once she was seated opposite him he held up the plastic sheath and passed it to her across the table. She stared at it without making a move.
The intensity of his command sent a shiver up her spine. The smooth plastic envelope delivered a traumatized paper to her hands a moment later. It flattened to reveal what looked at first glance like a schematic. The top of the page held a title - 'Harmonic Oscillation of Physical Mediums via Amplified Frequency Differentials' - and at the bottom of the page was a hand scribbled note.
Jane, let's try this after school today. -Dex
"Well?" Harry asked.
"Well what?" She honestly wasn't sure what he expected her to say.
"He was holding this note when we found him."
"Found him where? What happened to him?!"
She was getting frustrated with everyone and everything. What was going on?
"Police responded to a call made by his neighbor early this morning, or late last night, depending on your point of view. He reported hearing a loud crash, I believe he described it as 'an impact earthquake'. When police arrived at the residence, they discovered a huge boulder in the back yard that was clearly out of place. Dexter Freeman was underneath that stone, crushed nearly beyond recognition. That paper was clutched in what was left of his bare hands. No one saw anything, and no one has any idea how that stone got into his yard, much less why he would have been under it. I'm personally concerned with how someone could use a ten ton rock as a murder weapon at all."
If Jane hadn't already fainted earlier she might have done so at this information, but this time she was able to withstand the overwhelming feeling. She tried her best to show no emotion at his proclamation. Was she — her invention — responsible for this? Harry did say they only found the paper, no gloves. If Dexter wasn't controlling the rock when it killed him, who was?
"Look, Jane ... can I call you Jane?"
"Only if I can call you Harry.”
She hated to be talked down to. It was one of the pet peeves she developed during her gradual excommunication from the scientific community. And it was always the men.
"Sure, if you prefer. Jane, I'll level with you. When we found your name on that paper, we looked you up. It was easy enough, since you work at the same school. Some of the higher ups saw your history, and they wanted to bring you in for questioning. The two of you were obviously doing some sort of underground research. Did it backfire in some way? Was this an accident that could have been avoided, or a willful action against an innocent man?"
She was speechless. Did they know about the stone in her garage? A sudden fear caused the bottom of her stomach to jump into her throat. What if the stone that killed her friend was the same she'd been working with just the day before? How many ten ton hunks of quartz could there be in any given area? She had to get home right away. She didn't even think to check the garage before she left for school. She was quickly upset with herself for two reasons; one, for not checking the lab as she did almost every morning, and two, for not remembering that she specifically needed to check the lab, since, as far as she knew, the power was still out. Not to mention the most important discovery of her career was hidden inside, supposedly locked away safely.
"I really don't know. Whatever he meant with this note, it wasn't something we were already working on. It sounds like he wanted to try a new experiment. It looks interesting — I really wish I had the chance to hear what he wanted to try."
She hoped the very real tears in her eyes weren't unnoticed by the detective.
"Can you think of any way a huge stone could have gotten into his backyard? I've got a crane coming from two counties over; it's the only one big enough to move that thing anywhere near here. It took three trucks just to roll the stone off the victim. And it couldn't have been dropped from very far, or it would have made a much larger indention."
"I have no idea how that could have happened," she lied.
The detective looked over her suspiciously. He had no reason not to believe her story, but she saw he wasn't buying her ignorance.
"Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt him? An ex lover perhaps, or a competing scientist? Anyone he might have pissed off?"
"Dexter was the gentlest man I knew, I don't think he would do anything to hurt anyone. But, I've only known him about a year and a half. I don't know a lot about his past."
She hoped Harry might take her lack of knowledge for its legitimacy. She truly didn't know much about where Dexter came from, but she also didn't expect it was anything sinister, or interesting in any way, really.
"Nothing special," Harry began, glancing through the file he held, which must have been Dexter's. "Mother and father are dead, died when he was young, but his family was apparently pretty well off. Graduated from Penn State in 2008 with a Master's in Acoustic Engineering. Moved to California in 2011, got a job within six months at Mendall High School teaching Music Theory and Appreciation, where I'm told he focuses his lectures on the science behind how music instruments work. As for his criminal record, well, it doesn't exist — he's totally clean. No speeding tickets, parking violations, not a damn thing. People talk a lot about being clean, not having a record, but ... there's always something. Except this time. No one has a perfect record unless it's for a reason."
He didn't finish his thought, but kept his eyes glued to hers while he made his final statements. He wanted her to react, to see what she would do under a vague accusation. He wanted her to blurt out something she didn't wish to share. Unfortunately for him, the fact that Dex had a perfect record was just as surprising to her; at least, she certainly didn't know why he would be superbly free of any run in with authority. Better luck than most men, for all she knew.
"Why would anyone need to have a perfect record?"
"To avoid arousing suspicion."
"I wouldn't have thought he had anything to hide. I thought he was pretty honest with me, for the most part at least. Like I said, I didn't know him that well."
They kept their eyes locked, but Harry was beginning to squint faintly. Was he still looking for falsities through her gaze? She needed to get out there.
"Could we finish this later? I really need to get back to my students."
She hoped she didn't sound too desperate, but her voice betrayed her. The detective straightened his back and looked up at the clock. The second hand was creeping slowly. The room was silent enough that the clicking of the clock was all that could be heard.
"Fine. Come back after school and we'll talk a little more. I have a few more things I want to ask you."
She sighed with instant relief and stood from the table, leaving the note and Harry seated firmly in the shady room.
"I'll be back as soon as the day is over, probably around 4. Bye, Harry."
She didn't wait for the annoyed look this time, but instead left the room in a hurry as soon as she finished speaking. She rushed past the clerk in the evidence room, down the hall toward the lobby, and out the front door, right past the officers who escorted her to the station.
"Don't you need a ride back?" one called after her.
"I'll take a cab!" she shouted before the door slammed shut behind her.
She wanted distance between herself and the police station, and found herself nearly jogging down the sidewalk. Once out of sight of the station she flagged down a cab. The driver gave her a curious look when she collapsed into the back seat, breathless and wheezing.
"Where to?" he asked in a thick accent that she couldn't place.
She gave him her home address instead of the school. The students would be fine without her for a while longer. Right now, she needed to see if anything was missing from her lab. Specifically, a large rock that might have been used to murder one of her closest friends.
When they arrived at her home she spent another few precious minutes convincing the cab driver to wait for her while she ran inside, assuring him she wouldn't be very long. He was irate, but when she flashed a handful of bills his tone changed slightly.
“Quick, quick,” he bellowed.
She bypassed going through the house and headed straight for the garage, knowing that nothing in the house was as important as the contents of the lab.
She fumbled with the key to the padlock on the door, anxious to see her worst fears realized. With the door open she found the flat light switch and flipped it, holding her breath that it would work.
The rainbow of lights was nowhere to be seen, and the computer monitor stayed a static black, but the tiny bulb churned to life in the center of the ceiling, illuminating the undisturbed tarp covering the stone.
Oh, thank God.
She hurried to the side of the rock and pulled off the tarp in a flourish. The gloves were still exactly where she left them, hanging in midair a few inches above the surface of the stone at shoulder height. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, but her ease was only temporary. A new and compelling question struck her. What else could have lifted the stone that killed Dexter, and where did that stone come from?
She flung the tarp back over the boulder and returned the lab to darkness before she locked up and rejoined the impatient cab driver.
"C'mon, c'mon, let's go," he spat. When he dropped her off at the school a few minutes later she gave him as big a tip as she could afford, but it wasn't enough. He drove off cursing under his breath, or at least cursing loud enough that she barely heard the slanders over his engine, which was surely his intent.
Despite her best efforts there was no focus for the rest of the school day. She kept seeing Dexter crushed by a giant falling rock in her mind's eye. The experiments her students conducted around her were miles away from the shoreline of her thoughts.
When the final bell of the day rang out after what seemed like an eternity, she hurried to her car after the last of the students filtered out of her class. She wasn't looking forward to going back to the police station, but she wanted it to be over with. Nothing was missing from her lab or her home. The police had nothing that connected her to the murder, since there wasn't anything that did so. There was nothing else Harry could possibly have that would be of any significance. Right?