53

It was late at night when King and Michelle arrived at Atticus College. The building housing Thornton Jorst’s office was locked. At the administration building Michelle persuaded a young intern on duty there to give her Jorst’s home address. It was about a mile off campus on a tree-shaded avenue of brick homes, where a number of other professors lived. There was no car in Jorst’s driveway as King pulled his Lexus to the curb, and no lights were on. They went up the drive to the front door and knocked, but no one answered. They looked around at the small backyard, but that was empty too.

“I can’t believe it, but Jorst must have been at the Fairmount Hotel when Ritter was killed,” said Michelle. “There’s no other explanation unless somebody called him from the hotel and told him what had happened.”

“Well, we’ll ask him that. But if he was there, he must have hightailed it out before the area was sealed off. That’s the only way he could have gotten to Regina and Kate with the news that fast.”

“Think he’ll admit being at the hotel?”

“I guess we’ll find out, because I intend on asking him. And I’d also like to ask about Regina Ramsey.”

“You’d think he would have mentioned they were talking marriage when we first spoke to him.”

“Not if he didn’t want us to know. Which makes me even more suspicious.” King looked at Michelle. “Are you armed?”

“Guns and creds, the whole power pack, why?”

“Just checking. I wonder if people lock their doors around here?”

“You’re not thinking of going in? That’s breaking and entering in the nighttime.”

“Not if you don’t break when you enter,” he said.

“Oh, really? Where’d you get your law degree? The University of Stupid?”

“All I’m saying is, it would be nice to have a peek with Jorst not around.”

“But he might be. He might be in there sleeping. Or he might come back while we’re inside.”

“Not we, just me. You’re a sworn law enforcement officer.”

“You’re a member of the bar. Technically that makes you an officer of the court.”

“Yeah, but us lawyers can always get around technicalities. It’s our specialty, or don’t you watch TV?” He went back to his car and got a flashlight. When he rejoined Michelle, she grabbed his arm. “Sean, this is crazy. What if a neighbor sees you and calls the cops?”

“Then we tell them we thought we heard someone calling out for help.”

“That is so unbelievably lame.”

King had already eased over to the back door and tried the knob. “Damn.”

Michelle breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s locked? Thank God!”

King swung the door open with a mischievous look. “Just kidding. I’ll only be a minute. Keep a sharp lookout.”

“Sean, don’t—”

He slipped inside before she could finish. Michelle started wandering around, hands in her pockets, trying to look like she hadn’t a care in the world while the acid ate away the lining of her stomach. She even attempted to whistle, but found she couldn’t because her lips were too dry from her sudden anxiety attack.

“Damn you, Sean King,” she muttered.

Inside, King found himself in the kitchen. As he swung his light around, the room was revealed as small and looked unused. Jorst seemed more of an eat-out kind of guy. He moved through to a living room that was very plainly furnished and neat. Bookcases lined the room and were, not surprisingly, full of tomes by Goethe, Francis Bacon, John Locke and the perennially popular Machiavelli.

Jorst’s home office was off the living room, and this space was more reflective of the man. The desk was piled high with books and papers, the floor cluttered, the small leather sofa similarly stacked with objects. The place smelled strongly of both cigarette and cigar smoke, and King noted an ashtray on the floor that was filled with butts. The walls were covered with cheap bookshelves, and they sagged under the weight of the books resting there. King poked around the desk, opened drawers and looked for secret hiding places yet found nothing of the sort. He doubted that if he pulled out one of the books a hidden passageway would be revealed, but he dutifully slipped out a couple of volumes just in case. Nothing happened.

Jorst was working on a book, he’d said, and the condition of his study seemed to confirm this, since notes, drafts and outlines were piled everywhere. Organization was evidently not the man’s strong suit, and King looked around in disgust at the mess. He couldn’t live ten minutes like this, although in his youth his apartment had looked even worse. At least he’d grown out of his pigsty; Jorst apparently never had. King fleetingly contemplated inviting Michelle in so she could get a quick hit of clutter. It would probably make her feel better.

Digging under the piles on the desk, he found an appointment book, but it was singularly uninformative. He next moved upstairs. There were two bedrooms there, and only one was ostensibly in use. Here Jorst was neater. His clothes were arranged nicely in his small closet, his shoes stacked on a cedar rack. King looked under the bed and was greeted only by dust balls. The adjoining bathroom revealed only a damp towel on the floor and some toiletries stacked on the sink. He went across to the other bedroom, obviously a guest room. There was a small adjoining bath here too, but there were no towels or toiletries. There was a shelf against one wall that held no books, but did have some photos on it. He shined the light on them one by one. They were of Jorst with various people, none of whom King recognized until he looked at the last face.

The voice calling from below startled him. “Sean, get your butt down here. Jorst is back.”

He looked out the window in time to see Jorst pulling his massive old car into the driveway. He turned off the light, put the photo in his pocket and carefully but quickly made his way down the steps and back toward the kitchen where Michelle was waiting. They exited via the back door, came around the side of the house, waited for Jorst to go inside and then knocked on the front door.

The professor came to the door, flinched when he saw them and cast a suspicious glance over their shoulders. “Is that your Lexus at the curb?” King nodded. “I didn’t see anyone in it when I passed by. And I didn’t see either of you on the sidewalk.”

“Well, I was stretched out in the backseat waiting for you to come home,” said King. “And Michelle had gone to one of your neighbors’ homes to see if they knew when you’d be back.”

Jorst didn’t look like he believed the story, but he ushered them in, and they settled in the living room.

“So you talked to Kate?” he asked.

“Yeah, she said you gave her the heads-up about us.”

“Did you expect that I wouldn’t?”

“I’m sure you two are very close.”

Jorst stared intently at King. “She was a colleague’s daughter, and then she was a student of mine. Implying anything else would be a mistake.”

“Well, considering that you and her mother were talking about getting married, you’d at least be her stepfather,” said King. “And here we didn’t even know you were dating.”

Jorst looked very uncomfortable. “And why should you, since it’s none of your business. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m rather busy.”

“Right, the book you’re writing. What’s it about, by the way?”

“You’re interested in political science, Mr. King?”

“I’m interested in lots of things.”

“I see. Well, if you have to know, it’s a study of voting patterns in the South, post-World War II to the present, and their impact on national elections. My theory is that the South today is no longer the ‘Old South.’ That, in fact, it’s one of the most heterogeneous, teeming pools of immigrants this country has seen since the turn of the last century. I won’t say that it’s quite yet a bastion of liberalism or even radical thought, but it’s not the South depicted in Gone with the Wind, or even in To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, the fastest-growing population element in Georgia right now is Middle Eastern.”

“I can see how the Hindus and Muslims coexisting with the bubbas and the Baptists must be fascinating,” opined King.

“That’s good,” said Jorst. “Bubbas and Baptists. Mind if I use that line for one of my chapter headings?”

“Feel free. You didn’t know the Ramseys before Atticus, did you?”

“No, I didn’t. Arnold Ramsey was at Atticus about two years before I arrived. I’d been a professor at a college in Kentucky before coming here.”

“When I said the Ramseys, I meant both Arnold and Regina.”

“My answer is the same. I didn’t know either until I came here. Why, did Kate say otherwise?”

“No,” Michelle said quickly. “She did tell us that her mother was good friends with you.”

“They both were friends of mine. I think Regina saw me as a hopeless bachelor and took it upon herself to make me feel welcome and comfortable. She was a truly remarkable woman. She worked with the drama class at the college and even performed in some of the productions. She was an astonishing actress, she really was. I’d heard Arnold talk about her talents, especially when she was younger, and assumed he was merely exaggerating. But when you saw her up there on stage, she was mesmerizing. And she was as kind and as good as she was talented. She was loved by many people.”

“I’m sure she was,” said King. “And after Arnold died, the two of you—”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jorst interrupted. “Arnold had been dead a very long time before we started seeing each other as anything more than friends.”

“And it got to the point where you were talking marriage.”

“I’d proposed and she’d accepted,” he said coldly.

“And then she died?”

Jorst’s features became pained. “Yes.”

“In fact, she committed suicide?”

“So they say.”

Michelle said quickly, “You don’t think so?”

“She was happy. She’d accepted my proposal of marriage. Now, I don’t think I’m vain in saying that it seems pretty far-fetched that the thought of being married to me would have driven her to suicide.”

“So you’re thinking she was murdered?”

“You tell me!” he snapped. “You’re the ones running around investigating. You figure it out. That’s not my area of expertise.”

“How did Kate take the news of your upcoming nuptials?”

“All right. She loved her father. She liked me. She knew I wasn’t looking to replace him. I truly believe she wanted her mother to be happy.”

“Were you a Vietnam War protester?”

Jorst seemed to take this abrupt change in direction smoothly. “Yes, along with millions of other people.”

“In California ever?”

“Where exactly is this all going?”

King said, “What would you say if we told you a man came to visit Arnold Ramsey for the purpose of enlisting his aid in killing Clyde Ritter and that this person mentioned your name?”

Jorst looked at him coolly. “I’d say whoever told you that was seriously mistaken. But then again, if it’s true, I can’t control other people using my name in conversation, can I?”

“Fair enough. Do you believe that Arnold Ramsey acted alone?”

“Until I’m presented with credible evidence to the contrary.”

“By all accounts he wasn’t a violent man, yet he performed the most violent act of all, murder.”

Jorst shrugged. “Who knows what beats deeply within the hearts of people?”

“That’s true. And Arnold Ramsey was involved in some serious protests in his youth. Perhaps one of which led to someone’s violent death.”

Jorst looked at him sharply. “What are you talking about?”

King had revealed that piece of information solely to gauge Jorst’s reaction to it. “One more thing. Did you drive separately or with Arnold Ramsey to the Fairmount Hotel on the morning he killed Ritter?”

To his credit Jorst didn’t show any reaction. His features were impassive. “You’re saying I was at the Fairmount that morning?”

King stared right at the man. “You’re saying you weren’t?”

He thought about this for a moment. “All right, I was there. With hundreds of other people. So what?”

“So what? Along with dating Regina Ramsey, that’s a pretty significant detail you forgot to mention.”

“Why should I have? I did nothing wrong. And in answer to your question, I drove separately.”

“And you must have run out of the place the very second after Ramsey fired, or else you wouldn’t have had time to pick up Regina and go and tell Kate in the middle of algebra.”

Jorst looked stonily at them; however, several beads of perspiration had appeared on his broad forehead. “There were lots of people running all over the place. I was as terrified as anyone else. I saw what happened. And I didn’t want Regina and Kate finding out on the news. So I drove as fast as I could to tell them myself. I thought I was being considerate. And I don’t appreciate how you seem to be drawing a negative conclusion from what I thought was a selfless act.”

King drew very close to the man. “Why did you go to the hotel that morning? Did you have a beef with Ritter too?”

“No, of course not.”

“So why, then?” persisted King.

“He was a presidential candidate. We don’t get many of those down here. I wanted to see for myself. It’s my field, after all.”

“What if I say that’s complete bullshit?” said King.

“I don’t owe you an explanation,” Jorst shot back.

King shrugged. “You’re right. We’ll send the FBI and the Secret Service down, and you can tell them. You have a phone we can use?”

“Wait a minute, just wait a minute.” King and Michelle looked at him expectantly. “All right, all right,” Jorst said quickly. He swallowed nervously, looking back and forth at them. “Look, I was worried about Arnold. He’d been so enraged about Ritter. I was afraid he might do something dumb. Please believe me that never for one second did I think that his plan was to kill the man. I never knew he had a gun until he fired it. I swear.”

“Go on,” said King.

“He didn’t know I was there. I followed him over. The night before, he told me he’d be attending the event. I stayed in the back. The crowd was so big that he never noticed me. He stayed far away from Ritter, and I started thinking that I’d just overreacted. I thought about leaving. I moved toward the door. Unbeknownst to me, it was right about then that he started moving toward Ritter. I turned back once, when I was right at the door. Just in time to see Arnold pull his gun and fire. I saw Ritter fall, and then I saw you fire and kill Arnold. And then the whole place exploded. And I was running as fast as I could. I was able to get out so quickly because I was already by the door. I remember almost running over one of the hotel maids who was standing by the door too.”

Michelle and King looked at each other: Loretta Baldwin.

Jorst continued, his face now ashen. “I couldn’t believe that it had happened. It all seemed like a nightmare. I ran to my car and drove off as fast as I could. I wasn’t the only one. Lots of people were fleeing that scene.”

“You never told the police this?”

“What was there to tell? I was there, saw what happened and fled, just like hundreds of other people. It’s not like the authorities needed my testimony or anything.”

“And you went and got Regina and told her. Why?”

“Why! For God’s sakes, her husband had just shot a presidential candidate. And then been killed himself. I had to tell her. Can’t you understand that?”

King pulled the photo he’d taken from the upstairs bedroom out of his pocket and handed it to Jorst. Jorst accepted it with shaky hands and looked down at the smiling face of Regina Ramsey.

“I guess I can, particularly if you were in love with her back then too,” said King quietly.

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