The Tunnels

As a math professor, I never expected to stumble upon a dead body in a department office, to say nothing of the events that have transpired since.  But there was no mistaking Gallagher’s bloody corpse, lying behind his desk, shot three times in the head and chest.  Gallagher and I had hated each other for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that he had been sleeping with my ex-wife, an affair that had started while she was still married to me.  He and I had gotten into a severe shouting match in his office the day before I discovered his body.  Only the intervention of a passing colleague had prevented us from coming to blows.  Now the police effort was devoted almost entirely to finding some physical evidence against me to go along with what they considered an already strong circumstantial case.

It was 8:45 Wednesday evening and I was sitting in my office waiting for Jaime, my colleague and girl friend — if a guy in his forties can call his significant other a ‘girl friend’.  The campus was pretty well lit and looking out my office window I could see that it was snowing heavily.  The forecast had been for twelve inches of snow, and it looked as if we had already reached that level with no sign of a letup.  Around here this weather was almost routine.  I had just gotten off the phone with my lawyer, Marissa Shea, after informing her that Jaime and I would probably be a little late for our meeting.

Outside of Perry Mason type mysteries the defense rarely solves a murder for an innocent client, but with the police so fixated on me, something had to be done.  Shea and her chief investigator, Jodi Cinto, had found that Gallagher was spending much more money than his salary as an associate professor would warrant.  Shea and Cinto had been interviewing people all day trying to find the source of those funds, and the meeting in Shea’s office was to discuss what they had found.  Jaime was included because she was much more familiar with some of the people than the rest of us were.

Jaime stomped into my office and dropped into one of my chairs, throwing her coat on another one.  “I can’t believe some people are in college, never mind taking an advanced level math class,” she complained.  “They’re supposed to have had prerequisites for this class.  I think some of them couldn’t program an alarm clock let alone a simple loop!”

Jaime’s evening course was Numerical Analysis.  After an evening class she was usually tired, hungry, and irritable.  She never let her frustration show to her students, so she tended to take it out on the first person she saw who was not a student in her class. Since I found Gallagher’s body she’s been even more edgy than usual.  I’ve learned that the only sensible thing to say to her after her class is some variation of ‘Yes, dear,’ at least until she had some food in her stomach.   But I’m not always sensible.  I said, “I don’t think they get to programming alarm clocks in their other class until next week.”  Jaime gave me a dirty look and started to say something when my office phone rang.

“Dr. Steinman,” came a breathless voice.  “This is Stephanie.  I’m in the library in a study carrel.  I heard two voices nearby.  I think some people are planning to kill you! You’ve got to get out of there!”

“Wait a minute, Steph, tell me exactly what you heard.”
“There’s no time to lose,” she said urgently.  “One of the voices, speaking with an accent, said something about finding ‘this Steinman dude who saw the list in Gallagher’s office.’  The other said that at this time you’re usually in your office waiting for Dr. Kantor.  He also said something about not leaving any witnesses.  The guy with the accent said that he shouldn’t worry, that they’ll take care of both of you before you can reveal the list to the police.  Then they walked away.  That’s all I know.”

“Stephanie,” I said.  “Stay hidden in the stacks and call 911.  And thanks for the warning.”

“911?  What’s going on?” Jaime asked.
Stephanie Coleman was just about the best and most conscientious student I’ve had in a long time.  Anything she said, I had to take seriously.  I had no idea what ‘list’ they were talking about, but evidently someone thought I might have seen it, whatever it was, and it posed a danger to them.  I glanced out the window and saw two guys plowing through the snow toward the front of our building.  They looked to be carrying guns.  “Do those guys look like students to you?” I exclaimed, pointing out the window.  “I think they’re coming here to kill us!  We’ve got to get the hell out of here right now!”

I grabbed Jaime’s hand and our coats and pulled her out of the office behind me.  We raced down the stairs.  I saw the two guys starting up the front porch.  The doors of the building were locked, but this wasn’t exactly Fort Knox.  It wouldn’t hold them for long.  “Out the back!” I screamed.

We raced into the kitchen where we saw two more guys at the back door.  They saw us too and took out guns.  “To the tunnels!” I shouted, pulling Jaime back down the hall to a seldom used door.  I pulled Jaime in after me, shot the bolt, and we ran down the stairs.

“What tunnels are you talking about?” Jaime yelled, as we unbolted the door at the bottom of the stairs and entered a dark, musty smelling corridor.  It was lit, barely, by well spaced forty watt bulbs, half of which were out.  I dropped our coats on the floor.  They would slow us down.

“The entire campus has a tunnel system under it, connecting most of the buildings,” I gasped, as we ran down the corridor.  “It was constructed back in the ’50s as a combination air raid shelter and method of getting from building to building during really bad weather.  It’s kind of spooky down here, so people tend not to use it.  Someone showed it to me my first year at the college, and I haven’t been here since.  Now it’s pretty much locked up.  I think mostly it’s used for storage space.”

I took a right at the first crossing tunnel we came to and then a left at the next one.  “Where are you going?” Jaime asked, sounding more and more out of breath.
“Away from those guys with the guns!” I responded.  “That bolt at the top of the stairs isn’t going to delay them much.”

“So we’re just going to run around under ground?” she asked.  “Until what?”
“We should come to doors leading to other campus buildings,” I said.  “If we can get to the surface we should be okay.  Stephanie’s going to call 911.  No reception in the tunnels.”

“You’re telling me you chose the only place in the twenty-first century that’s off the grid?  Brilliant escape plan!”

I really wished Jaime had had something to eat before we left.
We ran until we came to a door with a smudged, unreadable sign on it indicating this was an entrance to some building.  The door was locked.  “Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!” I screamed.

Jaime was bent over gasping for breath.  “Can you break the door down?” she asked.
“No time!” I yelled.  “I can hear them coming! Let’s go!”
I grabbed her hand and pulled her toward another cross corridor.  “I don’t think I can go on!” she said, nearly falling down.

Just then a couple of guys in black leather jackets came around a corner about one hundred feet away, saw us, and started to shoot.  I pulled Jaime into the cross corridor.  The shots gave her a burst of adrenaline, and we sprinted down the corridor, took the first left and the next right.  I had no idea where we were.  I was just taking random turns.

I worked out nearly every day.  Much of my workout schedule had me running on an indoor track.  I could do this for a while, but Jaime couldn’t.  Fortunately the black jacket guys were in no better shape than she was, so temporarily we got away.  We came to a door that I yanked open, but all we saw was a storage compartment loaded with old desks.

“Maybe we can hide there,” Jaime said hopefully.
“They’d find us for sure,” I said.  “There’s no other way out of that room and our footprints in the dust will tell them we stopped here.  But they’ll have to check it out in case one of us stayed.  That’ll slow them down a little.  Let’s go.”

A couple of minutes later we came to another door that opened.  It turned out to be a tool closet.  I started to close it, spotted a two-foot long wrench, reached in and grabbed it.  Jaime said, “Taking that’ll slow you down.”

“They have guns,” I replied, “I’m a guy!  I have to have something!”  Jaime just shook her head.

We took a couple more corridors, tried several more doors, but all the ones leading to campus buildings were locked and all the others were basically storage closets.  Finally, as I was trying another door leading to a building, Jaime stumbled over a rough patch in the floor and fell down breathing so hard she sounded as if she were having an asthmatic attack.

“I twisted my ankle,” she gasped.  “I can’t go on.  Let me hide in the next closet and you go on.  I’m just slowing you down anyway.  They’ll see your tracks in the dust.  Maybe they won’t check out the closet too closely and they’ll miss me.  You can lead them away.”

I shook my head.  There was no way I was going to leave her.  Suddenly I had an idea.  It was a long shot, but Jaime was too gassed for anything else.  Ten feet beyond the door I had just tried there was an alcove on the right side of the corridor about two feet deep.  If Jaime got in that alcove, they wouldn’t see her clearly until they got close, but they might notice there was something there.  There was a slightly deeper alcove about ten feet back from the door on the left side of the corridor.

“Jaime, trust me please,” I said.  I pointed to the alcove beyond the door.  “Get in that alcove.  Stick out your toe or something.  I want them to see you, but don’t expose anything vital.”

“Great! I’m bait!” Jaime mumbled, as she got to her feet and limped down to the alcove I had pointed to.  I ran back to the other alcove and flattened myself as far back as I could with the wrench raised, trying to make my breathing sound less like gale force winds.  About twenty seconds later one of them entered the corridor, spied Jaime, yelled something in a foreign language to one of his cohorts, and raced down the corridor.  As he was passing I stepped out.  He must have heard me because he started to turn, but he was too late.  I brought the wrench down on top of his head with all my strength.

Despite my limited muscle mass he dropped like a stone, his gun skittering down the corridor.  I dove over him toward the gun.  His partner came around the corner, saw me, and let loose with a fusillade of shots.  Fortunately these people were not marksmen.  They didn’t go to shooting ranges as my ex and I used to do in a vain attempt to impress her father.  Most of their shooting was up close and very personal, not running down a dark tunnel with a handgun.  With the first man’s gun in hand, I spun around and aimed back up the corridor.  I was lying prone and holding the gun steady with two hands.  I fired several shots.  He went down with a cry.  My ex would have never believed it.

I had no idea how many rounds were left in the gun in my hand.  I had no spare magazine.  Two black coats were down, but there were at least two other guys.  I raced back to the guy I had shot and grabbed his gun just before two more guys in black leather jackets came around the corner beyond where Jaime was.  Did these guys deliberately coordinate their wardrobes before they came to murder me?  I hit the deck.  They had tried to encircle us, and it would have worked if I hadn’t taken out the first two guys.

The new players saw me and started to shoot.  But they were upright and moving and I was not.  I returned fire and hit at least one, but it wasn’t fatal, at least not instantly fatal, because he and his partner ran away.

“Jaime,” I called out.  “Are you all right?”
She looked out from the alcove, saw the two guys on the ground, and saw me holding the two guns. She limped over and hugged me, starting to cry and shake, and said through her tears, “I’ve never been so scared in my whole life!  Are you hurt at all?”

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I think the other guys ran away but I can’t be sure they won’t come back.  We’re not out of this yet.”

“Then get us out of this!” she yelled, trying to hold herself together.
“I’ll see if I can break that door open,” I said.  The head of the wrench was covered with blood.  I didn’t want to touch it, but I didn’t want to go back to the tool room either, even assuming I could find it again.  I grabbed the wrench and used it to beat on the door to the campus building.  I tried to ignore the blood dripping down the handle of the wrench.  Finally the lock broke.

We went up the stairs and found ourselves in Steeber Hall, the building housing the English department.  As soon as we got a cell phone signal, Jaime called 911 while I looked for an office or some room where we could hide in case the black jacket guys came back.  All the rooms were locked.  I barricaded the door to the tunnel as best I could with hallway furniture, and we waited near the front door.  After several minutes had gone by I turned to Jaime and asked, “What’s taking the cops so long?”

“Because of the weather there’s been several accidents,” she replied.  “Most of their people are tied up with those.  They’re going to try to get a couple of cops here along with the detectives.”

Jaime looked pale, and I hoped she was going to be okay.  It was me who had the problem though, not Jaime.  All at once my knees got wobbly and I started feeling sick.  I went as fast as I could to the men’s room down the hall while keeping my teeth clenched tightly together.  I managed to get my head in the commode before I let loose.  It felt like my entire insides were coming out.  I was sweating profusely, I was nauseous, my heart was racing, and the room seemed to be tilting.  I had been scared but was completely able to function while the action was taking place, but now that it was finished and the adrenaline rush was over I felt incredibly awful.

When I’d found Gallagher’s body I also threw up. The shooting range had prepared me to aim, but nothing could prepare me for the reality that I had just clubbed one man to death and shot at least one other.  After a while my heart rate slowed and I began to feel a little better.  This incident, along with Stephanie’s testimony, would probably get me off the hook with the cops for Gallagher’s murder.  Assuming the cops would be able to identify the dead guys, we would likely learn the source of Gallagher’s money even without that mysterious list, and the police would probably believe Gallagher’s murder was caused by a falling out among thieves.

When I came out of the lavatory, Jaime looked at me with some concern, and said, “Are you okay?  You were in there a long time.  Did you get shot?  God, I’m sorry I got you into this mess!”

“I’m fine,” I replied.  “I just had a delayed reaction.”  Then her last sentence sunk in.  “What do you mean you got me into this mess?”

Tears started flowing down Jaime’s cheeks, and suddenly I got it.  “You shot Gallagher!” I exclaimed.

She nodded and started to cry harder.  “He said that if I didn’t sleep with him he would guarantee that I never got tenure.  He laughed and said anyone who would sleep with a sniveling piece of crap like Steinman didn’t deserve tenure anyway, and I had to show I was ready to go the extra mile to get it.  He bragged that he had started boinking your ex two days after he met her.  I got my father’s old gun.  It’s never been registered.  I know this sounds like a cliché from a bad cop show, but it’s true.  I just wanted to scare him with it.  He laughed at me again, called me a stupid bitch, said I wouldn’t have the guts to shoot, and reached for the gun.  I pulled the trigger.  Then I pulled it again.  And again.”

I was silent for a couple of minutes.  “When he and I had that confrontation in his office he must have had the list, whatever it is, on his desk, and he thought I might have seen it.  He had to get rid of me and just in case I had told you about the list, you also.  Getting you to sleep with him would just be icing on the cake.  He probably told his ‘associates’ that I saw the list, and they should bump me off before I could get to the police.  What did you do with the gun?”

“I threw it into the river.  What are you grinning about?  This is serious!  Are you going to turn me in?”

Jaime was now getting angry.  I preferred that to the tears.  “I’m not going to turn you in,” I said.  “First of all, anyone who shot Gallagher should get a medal.  And now I’m almost certainly off the hook.  Think about it. When I had nothing to do with Gallagher’s shooting, the cops thought I had done it.  Not turning you in will make me an accessory after the fact, but because of the tunnel incident, they’ll very likely think we’re just victims.”

“What about the gangsters?” she asked.  “Aren’t you worried about them?”
“If I actually saw that list, I would certainly tell the police about it now,” I replied.  “Whacking me at this point would serve no purpose except to put additional heat on them.  It’s possible that the FBI’s organized crime unit might get involved.  I think they’re just going to lay low.  The cops have no reason to suspect you, and no physical evidence.  It looks like we’re free and clear.”

***

Biographical Note:  I am an emeritus of Mathematics at Wilkes University, where I taught for forty-two years.  Wilkes is a small private college located in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  I hold a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Brown University.  I am an avid reader of mysteries and science fiction.  I have had a few technical papers published, but never any fiction.

 

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