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PUBLISH OR PERISH
A working weekend at a Princeton conference is just what Nikki needs to deflect the pre-holiday pressures both professional and personal that are closing in on her back in Cambridge. And there will be down time, too, at a party honoring professor Earl Stokes, her old friend and mentor. Rumors abound that Stokes, a Princeton superstar, may depart for Harvard, a change that would stir up as much controversy as his new bestselling book on race issues. When Stokes's body is discovered among the smoldering ruins of the not-yet-completed black-studies building, a shattered Nikki refuses to accept the police findings that the death was accidental. And among the ashes she will uncover a murderous agenda with ominous implications for not only the Princeton campus but Harvard as well.
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Orange CrushedAn Ivy League Mystery
By Pamela Thomas-Graham
All right reserved.
Chapter One'Dis Side of Paradise
The day ended in ash. But it began in snow.
Snow, and whining.
"Isn't it adorable? You don't see trains like this anymore. It reminds me of when I was a girl. I could've ridden on that little trolley car for hours." The gray-haired woman who had been sitting across the aisle from us could barely contain her excitement. She lovingly patted the side of the silvery metal engine with her white-gloved hand.
"For God's sake," my traveling companion snapped. "It's a New Jersey Transit train car that looks as if it hasn't had a bath since the Fourth of July! If I hear one more person cooing over how cute it is I am going to throw up, I swear."
It was the second Friday in December, and my best friend Jessica Leiberman and I were standing beside the train station in Princeton, having just stepped off "the dinky," the Lilliputian train that ferries passengers back and forth from the Amtrak station in Princeton Junction.
We had just finished the last leg of a seven-hour trek from Cambridge, Massachusetts, that had involved one subway, three trains, two different one-hour delays, and more sugar, fat, and caffeine than were strictly necessary, and we were in no mood for wonder.However, a less cynical and weary traveler would have had to agree with the breathless pronouncements of our fellow passenger. The setting was charming: a rustic stone train station that sheltered a two-car train, an amiable conductor, and a handful of rosy-cheeked riders. The dusting of snow covering the slate roof of the station and the surrounding sidewalk looked as if it had been deposited expressly for aesthetic purposes, and the nearby cluster of carolers flanked by a Salvation Army Santa could only have been supplied by Central Casting.
"Merry Christmas!" the effusive woman from the train called to us as she set out across the cobblestone sidewalk.
"We don't all celebrate Christmas, you know!" Jess muttered. As she impatiently stamped her feet, I glanced at her and smiled to myself.
All over Cambridge, people were thanking me for getting her out of town for the weekend.
"Chill out, Jess," I admonished her, taking her by the hand. "Just because he dumped you doesn't give you license to take it out on the rest of us."
"He didn't dump me!" she blazed. "I dumped him."
How could I forget? We'd only rehashed the saga in excruciating detail three times during the train trip. I knew the story. Our fellow passengers knew - and had commented on - the story. The entire eastern seaboard knew the story. I smiled pleasantly without speaking.
"Don't patronize me," she snapped.
"Did I say anything?"
"Just because you're in some kind of Zen state doesn't mean that I have to be, too." Jess turned away, frowning. "I expect you to be on my side, even if he is your housemate." Suddenly, her face lit up. "Ricky!" she exclaimed.
Loping toward us across the snow was a tall handsome man in his late twenties with sparkling brown eyes and café au lait skin. In one hand he held a tall paper cup from Wawa's, and in the other, a copy of The Invisible Man. An infectious smile spread broadly across his face at the sound of Jess's voice, and every woman within a hundred-foot radius took note appreciatively. I grinned along with them. My little brother has that effect on people.
My name is Veronica Chase - Nikki to my friends, and Professor Chase to my students at Harvard. Ostensibly, I'd come to Princeton to present a paper at a weekend conference at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on the rise of oligopolies in Eastern Europe. It was just another of the many hoops I was jumping through at age thirty in pursuit of my goal of being the first black woman ever to receive tenure in the Harvard Economics Department. But like Jess, I had left Cambridge on the run - from an acting department chairman who was driving me mad, from the impatient glares of students more caught up in the whirl of holiday parties than in the necessity of turning in term papers on time. And from male troubles of my own.
"What took you so long?" my brother demanded, engulfing me in his embrace. "I was about to send out my posse."
"Hey!" Jess demanded. "I need a hug more than she does right now."
I met Eric's eyes over Jess's shoulder, and we grinned at each other. Despite Jess's penchant for calling him Ricky, I referred to my brother as Eric - pairing us as Nikki and Ricky amused Jess, but it was a bit much for both of us.
"You've lost weight," he said, regarding me critically. "What's up?"
"Not now." I shook my head dismissively.
He looked me over again and then shrugged. "All right, your call. We've got the whole weekend to talk. Let's get going, ladies. Your chariot awaits." He nodded toward an orange metal golf cart, the preferred method of vehicular transportation for jocks around the campus. "It'll be tight, but we should make it."
"I'd rather walk," I replied. "But do you mind hanging on to this?" My gesture was broad enough to encompass my two fairly large suitcases and my high-maintenance companion.
"I've got you covered," he said assuredly. "I'll meet you at the Annex later. What's it gonna be, Jess? Hot fudge at Thomas Sweet's or a martini at Lahiere's?"
"I've have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm up for anything involving alcohol, chocolate, or some combination of the two," she replied emphatically. "Let's go."
"You remember how to get to Woody Woo, right?" he asked as they loaded up.
"Of course! I'll be fine," I replied, suppressing a laugh at the commonly accepted nickname of the Woodrow Wilson School. "I'm going to stop by and say hi to Professor Stokes first."
Finally free, I sauntered slowly beyond Alexander Street and up University Place, propelled along by the bracing winter air and the patrician charms of Princeton. I caught glimpses of the leaded glass windows and stone archways of Pyne and Henry Halls, and their promise of grace and order coaxed me farther up the tree-lined street. The campus hadn't changed at all since the first time we dropped Eric off as a college freshman almost ten years ago. It was still a dream of an Ivy League college: towering elm trees, flagstone walkways, stately Gothic buildings. If you closed your eyes and tried to conjure up the ultimate bucolic college campus, this would be it, particularly at Christmastime. Despite the New Jersey locale, somehow the air was scented with a whiff of the Deep South. Perhaps it was the long wisteria vines that encircled some of the windows, which mimicked the look of the moss hanging from the trees of an antebellum plantation. Or maybe it was the tall Grecian columns on a couple of the campus buildings. Or perhaps it was the perfectly coiffed blond hair and well-mannered demeanor of so many of the students. Whatever the ineffable source of the feeling, it was very real. The lawns were invisible underneath their blanket of snow, but I felt certain that they had been lovingly trimmed to a socially acceptable height.
I was alone with my thoughts for the first time in days, and I wasn't certain that I was happy in their company. I had spent the past three months in a state of professional and personal chaos, and now all I wanted was silence. Silence and distance from the source of the turmoil. Instead, a cacophony of voices rang in my ears - police officers, reporters, Harvard faculty. And my own voice, entwined with his - bitter, angry, and impassioned.
Determinedly, I forced myself to focus on the faces of the passersby. I had wanted a change of scenery, and here it was. Although the scene wasn't really much different from Harvard. A trio of young blond men in varsity jackets passed before me, loudly discussing their squash games as they headed toward Dillon Gym. A lone woman in a plaid miniskirt and a black leather jacket walked by in deep reverie. Two older gentlemen in long wool herringbone coats leaned toward each other, gesticulating broadly with their lit pipes as they climbed the stone stairs toward Blair Arch. Then a young black woman passed me, and I suddenly remembered one thing that was different about Princeton.
At Harvard, in the crush of people in the square and the Yard, no one makes any particular effort to make eye contact with passersby. In most cases, the denizens of Cambridge are either deep in conversation with their companions, or lost in thought. The phenomenon of being surrounded by people and yet utterly unnoticed holds true across lines of age, race, and gender, and it says a lot about what it means to be at Harvard. But at Princeton, the black people always stare.
Not at everyone, of course. Just at the black faces - especially the new black faces. They do it intensely, almost longingly. As if they are hoping to find kinship, or to express solidarity. The first time it happened to me, I felt almost violated by the scrutiny. Now it just saddens me. When the imploring gaze falls on me, I want to stop and embrace the person. My father says it's just another symptom of "WFO" - white folk overload. When living in a small community dominated by blond conservatives, perhaps even the most culturally integrated African-American starts to long for a glimpse of brown skin and dark hair. Whatever the reason, in my experience the black students of Princeton tend to have the look of people living in occupied territory - wary, lonely, and deeply tired.
Which was what was so striking about the young black woman who passed me that afternoon. She was none of those things. I watched her, expecting The Look in return, and instead received a cool appraisal that told me instantly that my hair wasn't quite right, my boots were a bit scuffed, and my overall appearance was of absolutely no threat to her. In the moment that it took me to suppress the urge to whip out a compact and freshen my lipstick, she was gone.
Perhaps things were changing here, after all.
By now I had reached the heart of the campus and was surrounded by Gothic buildings. Straight ahead of me was McCosh Hall - then my destination: Dickinson Hall, a three-story off-white limestone structure with oversize leaded-glass windows. The building housed Princeton's Program in African-American Studies, and I was planning to make a call on Professor Earl Stokes, the country's leading scholar on urban economics and rumored to be an impending addition to Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department. In addition to being a leading light in Princeton's Economics Department, he was also the head of the university's tiny Program in African-American Studies.
Certain circles on the campuses of both Harvard and Princeton were currently in turmoil over the news that Earl might be leaving Princeton to come to Cambridge. He had been born and raised in Princeton, and his departure would be quite a blow to the university's claims regarding the diversity of its faculty. The Stokes family had been a fixture in the town of Princeton for three generations. Earl was a best-selling author as well as a highly respected scholar. His last book, Color Counts, had sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for almost six months, and he made frequent appearances to discuss economics and race on the talk-show circuit and at the White House. Intense and righteous, he had the air of a minister and accepted the reverence that resulted from it with quiet pride. I had met him when Eric ran into some trouble as a Princeton senior and needed to be bailed out, and we'd kept in close touch through the years. He had become a mentor and a role model for me, and had quietly lent a hand from time to time when I needed help understanding the high-stakes game of academic politics. So I was thrilled to hear that he might be coming to Harvard.
Thrilled, but a bit bemused. Because I had heard that he wouldn't be coming to lead Afro-Am, which was what one would expect for a man of his stature. The rumor was that he would join as just another member of the department, which was being reinvented by another star black professor, Percy Hubbard. And we all knew that "Butch" Hubbard could be trouble.
Butch Hubbard was in many ways the mirror image of Earl. Where Earl was unflappable, Butch was mercurial. Where Earl tended to base his painstakingly accurate arguments on months of tedious research, Butch was just as happy to share his opinions based on nothing more than how he happened to view the world that particular morning. And while it caused Earl great physical discomfort to ask for funding for even his most cherished research studies, Butch Hubbard was the type who'd cheerfully hit you up for money for some new program at Afro-Am if you happened to be stopped at a red light on the sidewalk next to him on Mass Ave. If you had cash, you had his interest. Expensive national surveys, original works by black artists to outfit his office, and high-priced African theme parties aboard yachts were all academic funding opportunities for the rich and famous.
Hubbard was always on. Always selling. In fact, my brother used to jokingly refer to Hubbard as "Sportin' Life" because he was so much like the charming rogue in Porgy and Bess. It was a fitting moniker for a man who perfectly blended an Oxford degree with ghetto-fabulous style. He was someone who not only loved to play people, but did it effortlessly. I worried that Earl didn't quite know what he would be signing up for if he decided to join Butch Hubbard's team, but I trusted that he was smart enough to do his due diligence before he made the move. Besides, I wanted Earl in Cambridge. So I was keeping my mouth shut about Butch.
I entered Dickinson Hall and went down a narrow flight of stairs. A cramped, extremely damp hallway with stained wooden doors lining both sides surrounded me. The faint hiss of steam grew louder as I walked down the hallway, and I shed my scarf as the temperature began to rise. I felt like I was paying a call to the boiler room. But this was where Princeton had chosen to house Earl Stokes's office. It seemed disrespectful to a man of his stature. Butch Hubbard, his Harvard counterpart, had one of the best offices on campus in Cambridge.
Earl's door was ajar when I reached his office. Even though he had his back to me, I knew it was he. The unfashionably long Afro, the tattered sleeve on his brown tweed sport coat. The chatter of NPR on the radio. This was definitely Earl Stokes's office.
"Nikki Chase?" A rich baritone voice boomed as two brown eyes peered into the mirror above the desk and a wooden swivel chair spun around. His embrace engulfed me in the scents of wool and 1970s-era Pierre Cardin aftershave. I inhaled deeply and felt a surge of contentment.
"What are you doing down here?" he exclaimed.
"I came down for a couple of days for a conference at Woody Woo, and of course I had to stop by. Do you have a minute?"
"For you? Of course!" he said with a broad smile. "Sit down."
"Whew! I see why you're building a new building for African-American Studies. It's like a furnace down here!" I declared as I tossed my jacket over the back of my chair. "How's the construction going?"
"Pretty well," Earl replied. "But it's a lot of work." He gestured to a large stack of blueprints on the floor in a corner. "Between fighting with the university trustees over whether this is an 'appropriate use of funds' and arguing with the Princeton building authority over zoning variances, it's a wonder there's time to teach. But when we get this thing built, it'll be a showplace for the department. Almost as good as what y'all have up north at Harvard." He grinned wryly.
I sensed my opening and jumped to the topic I really wanted to discuss. "So is it true?" I asked eagerly.
Earl leaned in close as his large brown eyes widened for dramatic effect. "You mean the job offer?"
"Of course that's what I mean! Tell me the whole story. How did it happen?"
He smiled again. "How did it happen?" He paused for dramatic effect and leaned back in his chair. "Well, it was damn near overnight. I'd been working for over a year researching how the economic successes of different American ethnic groups shaped certain American cities. We issued the final report a month ago, and it got covered in Fortune and several academic journals. And then I get a call from President Townsend asking me to come up and give him a hand. We know each other because we served on that Presidential commission on urban development, you know."
Excerpted from Orange Crushed by Pamela Thomas-Graham Copyright © 2004 by Pamela Thomas-Graham. Excerpted by permission.
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