The murder of a talented student at a small New England college thrusts linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau into the search for the killer. Lauren is a determined Quaker with an ear for accents. Her investigation exposes small town intrigues, academic blackmail and a clandestine drug cartel that now has its sights set on her.
Convinced that the key to the crime lies hidden in her dead student’s thesis, Lauren races to solve the mystery while an escalating trail of misfortune circles ever closer. Her department chair behaves suspiciously. A century-old local boat shop is torched. Lauren’s best friend goes missing—and the unsettled relationship with her long-time lover threatens to implode just when she needs him the most.
Speaking of Murder was first runner up for the Linda Howard Award for Excellence in March of 2012. It is the first book in the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries series
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“Tace Baker has a genuine knack for spinning a deftly crafted mystery that will keep the readers rapt and total attention from beginning to end. Speaking of Murder is a highly entertaining and recommended addition to personal leisure time reading lists and community library Mystery/Suspense collections.” — Julie Simmons, The Midwest Book Review
“Entertaining, innovative and suspenseful, this charming traditional mystery debut is just the ticket for those relishing a contemporary puzzler. Tace Baker’s first novel shows remarkable polish.” — Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author, One Was a Soldier
“Clever, compelling and terrifically smart, Baker’s intelligent writing—and wryly wonderful sleuth—gives a hip, contemporary twist to this traditional mystery.” —Hank Phillippi Ryan , Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity winning author, The Other Woman
“What’s the recipe for a delicious mystery? A generous helping of academic politics, a dash of small town flavor, a touch of family complications, a savory handful of illegal herbs. Sweeten with a little romance, toss well until combined and then sit back and enjoy Speaking of Murder.” —Kate Flora, Edgar-nominated author, Finding Amy and Angel of Knowlton Park
“Debut author Tace Baker combines convincing, diverse characters, a vividly described setting, and a plot that picks up speed until it reaches a surprisingly intense confrontation. Who knew that linguistics professors led such interesting lives?” —Sheila Connolly, Agatha-nominated author of the Orchard Mystery series and the Museum Mystery series
I watched Jamal Carter stretch his dark, silken body like a tiger in my bed and wondered just exactly how I was going to get myself out of this mess. He turned to me. “Time to rise and shine, Professor.” The early Saturday light shone into green eyes flecked with brown. He reached over and lightly smacked my naked hip. With a sly pull to his mouth, he winked one of those deep-set eyes.
I closed my own eyes and groaned. “You know you can’t say anything about this. To anybody. Ever.” I opened my eyes and trained them on my student. It was hard to be serious with a gorgeous man in the nude, but I tried.
“Hey, honey, I’m a big boy.” Jamal’s casual tone belied his sudden departure from the bed. “I’m not going to get my esteemed advisor in trouble for sleeping with me.” The sarcasm on ‘esteemed’ was unmistakable. “That would be counterproductive.”
I watched as he pulled on his slacks and buttoned up his long-sleeved shirt. I pulled up the covers then reached out my hand. “You’re not mad, right? I had a wonderful night.” I tried to smile. “It’s just—”
“Not mad. This fling of yours is late for work, though. See you around campus.” He pressed his palms together at his chest and lowered his head toward them for a moment. “Namaste.”
I heard the door of my condo close behind him. “Nice, Rousseau. You got what you wanted. A casual Friday-night fling to take your mind off Zac. With your star student. How could you be so stupid?”
* * *
I stopped short after rounding a corner several yards down the hall and pressed myself against the wall.
“With all due respect, ma’am,” Jamal said to Alexa Kensington, my department chair at Agawam College. He sliced a hand through the air for emphasis. “It’s a perfectly good thesis topic, and Professor Rousseau agrees. Just because you don’t value it doesn’t mean you should cancel my fellowship.”
It was Monday morning, and I had no intention of tangling with Alexa’s fury if I didn’t have to. Jamal could hold his own. I didn’t really want to tangle with him right now, either. Luckily, neither faced me directly.
“Mr. Carter.” Alexa’s voice rang out in the empty hallway. She was almost as tall as my student and usually as pale as he was dark, but her neck and cheeks now flared dark pink. “We have had this discussion before. As you know, your thesis-topic appeal is being considered by the fellowship committee.” She shook her perfectly coiffed silver cap of hair and looked around like she wanted to escape—until her eyes found me.
“Ah, Lauren.” Alexa beckoned. “Won’t you join us?”
Pretty much the last thing I wanted to do. But, the boss being the boss, I walked toward them then started when a door clicked closed on my right. The shadow of a figure appeared behind the glass. Probably someone smart enough to hide when they saw Alexa.
“Mr. Carter is apparently unhappy with the department, Lauren. Perhaps the two of you can settle the matter? I have a meeting to get to,” Alexa said, avoiding Jamal’s eyes. “You can take care of this, can’t you? As someone in line for full professor?”
I sighed as the elegant figure strode away. Alexa’s arm swung with purpose as she walked, and her boot heels planted firm resonant steps on the floor.
“What’s going on?” I faced Jamal.
A couple of undergrads in uniforms of flannel pajama pants, flip-flops, ear buds, and book bags slapped by.
“Same old issue. Can we talk in your office, Dr. Rousseau?” Jamal asked, still looking down the hall.
“You know the way.”
We walked in silence. I felt him fuming.
Helmut, another Linguistics undergrad, emerged from a classroom right in front of us. He stared at Jamal, at me, and back at Jamal. I nodded at him. Why was he staring? Were we walking too close to each other? Jamal ignored him as we passed. I hoped Helmut didn’t see the blush that raced up my neck.
Jamal and I continued to my office. A moment later, we sat in two deep armchairs covered in indigo cloth. The chair behind my wooden desk might be more appropriate for me to sit in, but it housed stacks of stapled papers and several piles of books and journals. My bonsai Chinese elm sat on the window sill.
Jamal extracted a stapled sheaf of papers from his bag and handed it to me. “First draft.” He seemed all business. Good.
“‘The Impact of Black Children’s Speech on Their Socio-Economic Success.’ Thanks. I look forward to reading this. You know, not that many undergrads even write honors theses.” I rose and pushed up the window sash then sat again. The air held a refreshing cold bite of mid-March in Massachusetts. The old building was always too hot.
“Anyway, Jamal, what’s going on with you and Dr. Kensington?”
“She’s a racist.” Jamal raised his eyebrows so his eyes looked even bigger.
I sat forward in my chair and waited for him to explain. I was aware of the rumors about the chair being less than welcoming to students of color but hadn’t heard anything specific.
“I got a letter saying they were going to revoke my fellowship because my thesis topic was, quote, not suitable for undergraduate credit, end quote. I thought you approved it, Professor Rousseau. You know, I’m about out of energy to keep fighting this.” Jamal slouched in his chair, abandoning his usual erect posture, and looked as if he had had a long bout with insomnia.
“I did approve it. But it’s too big of a topic for an undergrad thesis, and I encouraged you to scale it back.”
“And I told you why I couldn’t!” Jamal rose and stood, jiggling one heel. “I can’t cut out anything. I need the lit review, the case studies, the follow-up. All of it.”
“Yes, but I approved it because you are a mature student, you have the background, and I believe you can pull it off. Being older, you’re serious about your work, unlike some of the students who are fresh out of high school.”
Jamal whirled to face me. “So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is Dr. Kensington. I put the topic through, and she disapproved. She can’t disallow you from doing it academically, but she does have a lot of influence on where the money for the department is spent. Now I’m arguing with the fellowship committee, most of whom are terrified of Alexa because they are about to be considered for tenure. And she can be, well, a bit critical.” Saying ‘a bit critical’ was like calling Mount Everest a foothill.
“Man, that is so unfair! I work with those kids at the Boys and Girls Club and at the chess club. Listen, I used to be one of those kids. I know their language, and I know how it can hold them back. You think I study linguistics to keep my head in the clouds?” He stared at me, brows drawn together, sinews standing out on his folded arms, dark eyes burning into mine.
“Tell me about the chess club.” Maybe talking would calm him down.
Jamal sat again and started tapping one hand on the arm of the chair. “I started a chess club for kids from Lawrence a couple years ago. Knights and Kings. Got a storefront, and it’s always full. Lots of brothers come by and play with the little guys.” Jamal smiled. “Written up in the Globe once when two of our players placed way up in a tournament, the New England Masters.”
“Oh, yeah. I read that story. My youngest sister was a top-level junior chess player. She was one of the only girls.”
“That reporter couldn’t believe a bunch of kids from the Boys and Girls Club were smart enough to play chess. Hmm.” Jamal shook his head and smiled again.
“How long ago were you in Japan?” From comments he’d made in class, I’d realized he’d lived there at some point.
He tilted his head to the side and looked at me with narrowed eyes, as if trying to figure out if I was changing the subject. “It’s been almost fifteen years. Navy,” he said. “Two years over there. Found I loved the culture.”
“Me, too.” I taught English conversation in Japan for two years after college. “At least the traditional culture. You know, the Zen temples, the food, how they pay attention to details.”
“I almost brought home a young Japanese woman to marry, but at the last minute her parents told her our cultures were too different, that it was doomed to fail. Frankly? I think they didn’t like my skin color.” He gazed at the bonsai tree.
“Now, what about my fellowship, professor?”
“Well, I’m going to do my best to intervene with the committee. I’ll see what strings I can pull.” I was unsure of my actual prospects for success, but you never knew. If any student deserved a fellowship, it was Jamal.
Jamal thanked me and left for another class.
The man was the most unusual undergrad I ever met. He must be at least my age, was devoted to his studies, and talked with passion about his work with young black people. And he was nice to look at, with a gorgeous voice to boot.
Five other students dropped by to talk about the midterm, to discuss paper topics, and, in one case, to present an implausible excuse for not finishing assigned work on time. At four o’clock, I shut the door to my office and stood at the window. I focused on the bonsai and looked at its new growth, kneeling so the plant and I were at eye level. I closed my eyes for a moment.
“Now, Elm…” I addressed the plant with open eyes. “You know we’re going to be doing some pruning soon. I want you to know it’s nothing personal. You and me, we’re creating art here. You’ve had a nice, cool, low-light winter, and now you’re doing some growing. You know the drill, right? I trim, you complain, and then we’re both happy with the results.”
A noise outside the door caused me to whirl in that direction, and when the sound didn’t recur, I took a deep breath, glad no one had caught me talking to a miniature tree on my windowsill.
“So get ready,” I continued. “Not today, but next week probably. And in a couple months, you can go back outside. Won’t that be nice?”
I decided to put in a couple of hours on my book. If I wanted to move from associate professor to full professor at Agawam College, I had to keep up with publishing, Once midterm exams got underway next week, I’d be in grading hell for days. I might as well do some writing now. Plus I had a date with Zac Agnant tonight. I sighed.
We’d been dating since last summer, but he’d suddenly gotten very serious.
I shook my head and switched on my computer. The slanting light cast a stretched-out shadow of the tiny elm on the burnished wooden floorboards as I got to work.
* * *
Zac and I faced each other in a booth in the Dodd Bridge pub, remnants of the best fried clams in the state on our plates. In my pocket, I fingered the tiny red Swiss Army knife Zac gave me at the start of the night. No occasion, just a fun little present from my boyfriend.
The fun disappeared a few minutes ago, though, when he resurrected the argument we kept having. The topic? Commitment. That is, him wanting commitment, walking toward me with arms open. And me, wary, backing away from it. From him.
“If you can’t decide, maybe we should start seeing other people.” He raised his eyebrows and challenged me with his eyes.
Ouch. That felt as cruel as the frigid weather outside, despite my own behavior a few nights ago. But that wasn’t really seeing someone else. It was just a one-time thing.
I downed my glass of Ipswich Ale without looking at him and marched out of the pub, feeling like he’d slapped me. Let him pay the damn tab. I hurried up Meetinghouse Hill, glancing behind me when the wind swirled a pile of last fall’s leaves.
I crossed High Street. Small-town life in Ashford had some drawbacks, but being able to walk home at night from the pub wasn’t one of them. I kicked at a pebble in the road, ruing Zac’s opinion along with my own temper.
I’d been looking forward to spending a cozy night with him, and instead I’d ended up alone. Again.
I started up the steep incline of my street. The woods across the road were straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales. The dark filled with obscured moving shapes rustling in the wind that was forecast to bring snow later. I knew the shapes were sumac, northern spicebush, and tall maples, but, in my imagination, Orcs and red-eyed wolves watched me. Pulling my beret farther down on my head, I trudged up the hill and made it into my condo safely. I collapsed on my couch with a glass of Scotch. Wulu jumped up next to me. I stroked his curly black cockapoo fur.
Zac. Why did he have to be so difficult? I wasn’t ready to get married and have babies yet. What was his big hurry?
Why wasn’t I ready, though? I was heading toward the far side of my thirties. Maybe I didn’t want to give up my bad habits. I had quite a history of letting myself be drawn in by men like Jamal, who I knew were either off limits or bad for me, but who were exciting and dangerous. A shrink would probably say I had abandonment issues because my father disappeared when I was nineteen then turned up dead a week later. Or maybe I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that Zac, my sexy Haitian-American videographer boyfriend, was the best thing to happen to me in years.
I pulled the little Swiss Army knife out of my purse and turned it over in my hand. It was exactly like the one my dad always carried on his key chain. The one I always coveted, the one that went with him to his death sixteen years earlier. It was a sweet thing of Zac to do, giving me that. It wasn’t my birthday. It wasn’t the anniversary of our meeting. He was way too sweet. Thinking of my slip-up with Jamal, I clearly didn’t merit such thoughtfulness. I threaded the knife onto my own key chain and returned my hand to Wulu’s warm head.
I’d have to thank Zac sometime. Just not tonight.
* * *
By some miracle, the sun shone the next day at noon, although a breeze chilled the air. I met Ralph Fourakis, my colleague and friend, at the end of his Modern Greek class and walked with him to the Lebanese lunch truck that parked on the campus common every midday. I bought a falafel sandwich and a bottle of water. Ralph ordered a shawarma with a soda.
We walked to a wooden bench in the sun. Several students played Frisbee on the patchy lawn. One brave soul, his eyes closed, sunbathed shirtless on his jacket.
I left Ralph a lot of space on the bench; he was both tall and bulky. Combined with his heavy black glasses and hair, he could look a little scary but was a gentle bear at heart.
We ate in silence for a few minutes then I squinted up at him. His wild hair in the sunlight created an aurora like Einstein’s. I outlined Jamal’s predicament for Ralph. “I don’t get what Alexa has against Jamal. It’s a big thesis topic, but I know he can do it.”
“Ah, she’s just a hard ass. Maybe she was the third child growing up and didn’t get enough attention or something or didn’t have enough power in her family. I don’t know, Rousseau.”
“Think I have any chance of swaying the fellowship committee?” I picked at the edge of my sandwich.
Ralph stretched out his legs and laid both arms along the back of the bench. “Well, I can try to help you. But you know the Ogre populated it with the newly hired and non-tenured among us. They don’t want to cross her.” He laughed. “We were there ourselves recently, remember.”
He and I had secured tenure a month earlier, despite Alexa’s attempts to railroad us in our efforts.
“Morning, Professor.” A rich voice spoke behind me.
Startled, I sat up straight and turned to see Jamal coming around the end of the bench, followed by two young boys. I greeted him then wondered if he heard us talking about Alexa.
Jamal introduced his Little Brother, Tyrone, and Nicky, Tyrone’s friend, who looked about nine. “They don’t have school today, so I’m showing them my school.” Jamal beamed at the boys. “Guys, this is Professor Rousseau. She speaks a lot of languages and is a good teacher.”
I held out my hand to Tyrone, who stepped right up and shook it. When I extended my hand to the smaller boy, he hesitated and looked at Jamal, who nodded and motioned for Nicky to shake hands.
“Jamal, boys, this is my colleague Ralph Fourakis. He teaches languages, too. Ralph, Jamal Carter.”
“You mean like Spanish and Creole?” Tyrone asked.
Ralph laughed. “That’s good, those are languages. I teach Greek and German, though. My Spanish isn’t too good.” Ralph stood and shook hands with Jamal.
In a quiet voice, Nicky asked Tyrone, “What’s a colleague?”
Tyrone turned his head away from the adults. “I don’t know, I thought it was a kind of dog. Maybe it’s somebody she calls a lot?”
I smiled at the boy’s sensible interpretation of a word he’d never heard before. Ralph, my “call-y.” Children’s creative take on language was one of the things that got me into linguistics in the first place.
“Okay, guys, let’s go.” Jamal ruffled the top of Tyrone’s head. “I want to show you the Science Center before we leave.”
I watched them walk along the paths of the quad toward the new multi-story building at the other end. The little group stopped suddenly, and I peered at the scene. A tall woman talked with Jamal.
“Uh-oh,” I said to Ralph, pointing. “Isn’t that Alexa?”
“You need new glasses? You bet it is.”
Alexa bent down and said something to the boys then straightened up. Jamal began gesturing at her with one hand and drew the boys around behind him with the other arm. Alexa stood stiffly. She started to walk away, and Jamal took hold of her wrist. She twisted away, and, even from this distance, I thought I could see the rage in her face.
I whistled. “This isn’t good, Ralph.”
“No, it isn’t. Should we do something?”
“Too late now. She’s walking away.”
Jamal stood in place, holding the boys close. He stared at Alexa as if at a monster.
* * *
I left Lockhart Hall at 9:30 after my evening class the next day. I pulled my turquoise wool scarf closer around my neck as what I hoped was the last cold wind of March stabbed at me. A small red car crunched on the ice when it exited the parking lot. The muffler backfired like the one on my friend Elise’s Rabbit. She didn’t have any reason to be on campus, though.
Maybe she’d been looking for me or attending a play. Not that I’d ever known Elise to attend plays or performances of any kind, for that matter.
Alexa Kensington’s light pushed into the dark from the fourth floor of the building. No one else walked the paths of the campus. Students cleared out as soon as they could after class was over.
I hoped I could persuade Alexa not to cancel Jamal’s fellowship. I hurried along, wondering if she was racist, as Jamal claimed. The toe of my leather boot caught on a brick. I staggered and fell, my gloved hands reaching out for the ground. My right knee grazed the uneven stones and I swore—that joint didn’t need any more damage than the years of running had already wrought. I looked around to see if anyone was passing by, but the walkways were empty.
The shadow of the branches in the wind caught my eye as I stood up. I walked fast between low hedges to the deserted parking lot. I glanced up at the building. A silhouette looked down from Alexa’s window. It was awfully late. Didn’t she have a life? At least someone else was around. The campus felt eerie at this time of night: during the day, students and faculty were always on the move between buildings.
I climbed into my small truck, creaked the door shut. I loved the reliable old set of wheels, but it was getting on in years. I pushed the lock button and started the truck. Letting the engine warm up, I rested my head on the steering wheel, not looking forward to the thirty-minute drive home. Wishing I didn’t have to get up early and drive right back here for morning classes. Hoping Jamal wasn’t in trouble with Alexa. Wondering what that incident with the children was all about.
I turned on the headlights. In front of me, I saw the still icy ground between the lot and the building illuminated as if on a movie set. The fir cast its shadow behind on the remaining bits of snow. My hand froze on the gearshift.
No. No! It couldn’t be. I shifted back into neutral, turned off the ignition, and stared at the scene. I climbed out, leaving the lights on and the door open. The chilly wind clawed at my chest and my eyes. My hands numbed. I couldn’t think. I moved forward at a pace that felt like slogging through a knee-high swamp. The ding-ding-ding from the vehicle sounded distant, from another reality.
A reality that did not include my star pupil slumped against a tree trunk. Papers spilled out of his messenger bag onto the ground, dry fir needles drawing scattered brown lines on the white surfaces. Jamal’s arms sprawled at his sides. His head tilted at an unnatural angle onto the collar of his open leather jacket. His eyes focused on nothing.