BCC gave Penny the creeps, and she was glad she had no more classes to take on its rundown campus. The college’s one-story buildings had all the soul, and none of the efficiency, of a FedEx warehouse. The students dressed like textbook illustrations of low self-esteem. Half the professors seemed like prison guards, wary of their own students. The other half were always looking up your skirt. After her first class at BCC, Penny always wore trousers on campus.
But there was one professor over here – well, he was really only an instructor – whom Penny kind of had a crush on. It wasn’t like she was going to sleep with him, but he was just kind of nice to be around. Daniel Burns had that macho presence. Complete confidence. It was sexy. But he was safe. She really liked being around strong older men who weren’t trying to fuck her.
And best of all, Dan Burns was the hero who’d finally brought down that murderous Jeff Road pervert.
She rapped on his office door.
Every other professor Penny had known inhabited a chaotic and usually smelly office. Not Dan Burns. His office was clean, squared away and smelled like a pine forest. She could see through glass that someone was in there. Whoever it was flipped the blinds closed.
But Penny had come a long way for this. She knocked again.
The door opened.
No matter what his title, Penny had always buttered up Dan Burns with the honorific. “Professor,” she said, “do you have a minute to … go over something?”
Those words she almost swallowed because, sitting with her back turned in the visitor’s chair was a woman with dark hair, red tinged.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you had a visitor, I uhm, I wanted to, we’re finishing up a statistical review on the Jeff Road murders and I just wondered if you had, you know,time has passed and you might have some insight that, you know what I mean?”
He stepped out into the dull hallway, closed the door behind him, almost as if trying to block her view.
“So I’ve heard, so I’ve heard,” he said. He wore a black shirt and tan chinos that somebody had ironed. Beside him, his bulletin board contained only a single sheet of paper, offering students a sign-up for one-on-one conferences. Nobody had signed.
“Penny I really don’t …” he touched her shoulder, in the light way of a friend. “You know I think it’s best to leave these things be. These people who commit sensational crimes get too much publicity as it is. The thrill of all this attention, it just motivates these sick people. It’s well known. They admire one another. There’s always another one out there somewhere, and I don’t care to encourage him.”
He shot her a look so intense it was frightening.
“Sorry,” she said, eyes cast down.
He softened. “How are things going over at Trinity?”
“I’m finally into pre-law,” she said.
“And your dad?”
“You know him. Working working working.
Penny shrugged. “Happy as she can ever be, I guess. She, you know, puts up a good front.”
“Tell them hello for me, and good luck to you this semester.”
He beamed. He stood there for what seemed like a long moment and Penny got the hint and turned away. Only when she was well down the hallway did she hear him close his office door.
Damn it, there was something strange going on, Penny could feel it. She’d never known him to be so politely unfriendly. She pushed open the door to the women’s restroom but it was so skanky in there she backed out and decided to wait and use the bathrooms at Want-A-Burger.
She wandered to the student lounge, with its dysfunctional faux fireplace and musty, stained furniture. The dominant color was red, honoring BCC’s chronically losing sports teams, the Bay Pirates. Out of her briefcase she pulled the draft report she’d meant to give to Dan Burns for review. As she looked it over, she despaired. Her writing was hopeless, tangled, she could not seem to take her professors’ advice to write simple declarative sentences. Run on run on run on she had seen those words scrawled in red on her papers a hundred times.
She took a pen from her purse and began to look for places to break up sentences, but couldn’t concentrate. There was something maddening about Dan Burns’ knee-jerk rejection. She stewed in righteous anger the more she thought about it. The least he could have done is glance at the report’s conclusions, and pretend he cared. Didn’t he realize she admired him?
She felt that she and Taylor’s Dad had something special, an attraction but a respectful one, between teacher and student, and now she resented being treated like an air-head. Damn it, she was going to march back there. She was not going to be brushed off like she was nothing.
She picked up her cellphone, intending to leave a message on Professor Burns’ voicemail, but her phone, mysteriously, would not make calls. She’d deal with that later, she told herself. She arose, grabbed her briefcase and had begun to march up the hallway when Professor Burns’ door opened and two figures briefly appeared in it. Only one turned and walked up the hallway. She was a tall woman with red-tinged dark hair, striding in high-heel boots. Wearing a gorgeous, sexy black dress, she looked like a fashion model striding through at a homeless shelter. She strode down the stairs and marched haughty right past Penny without really seeing her. She may not have recognized Penny among all these students, but there was no mistaking her. This was the notorious Billie “Poison” McGinn.