Death Angel, a Mycology Mystery
By Mary Stebbins Taitt
Chapter 1: Back Off
"Rune," Larry Thompson said, "back off. You're putting yourself in danger, asking too many questions."
Rune looked up from her computer in her closet-sized office to see Larry looking over her shoulder. On the screen was an old clipping. The headline read, "Four Renowned Cornell Mycologists Dead of Mushroom Poisoning!" Under that, the subtitle read, "Terrible Accident Claims Four Cornell Profs." The date on the clipping was from August over thirteen years ago.
"Why are you worrying about this old accident?" Larry asked, pointing at the clipping. “I know those training sessions Dr. McHaggerty had all week for the teaching assistants have piqued your interest, by that accident was thirteen years ago.”
“McHaggerty’s been talking about this for years. He talked about it when I took Mycology. He talked about it when I assisted my senior year. But I was distracted then by other problems in my life. True, he calls it an accident. But he explains how to avoid the accident, and I can’t believe that those intelligent, experienced professors would make the same mistake McHaggerty expects Mycology 158 students to understand and avoid. I think it was no accident. I think it was murder and there is no statute of limitations on murder," Rune answered.
"You really think they were murdered? The police insisted it was just an accident. They wouldn't listen when a number of us suggested murder. We went round and round about it."
"If you don't think it was murder, why are you telling me to back off and butt out? Are you threatening me, Larry?"
Larry reached over and pushed the door shut. Rune looked up, surprised. Her office was so small that closing the door made her slightly claustrophobic.
Larry was the head audio-visual guru at the college of Environmental Sciences and Forestry or ESF. His office, like hers, was on the entomology floor of Illick Hall. The door to his office was down the same little alcove hallway as hers; the door to his office and storeroom was right next to hers, at right angles. They were on the second floor, and not far from the elevators. It was a convenient location for a man who pushed around carts of equipment all day every day.
Already, Rune and Larry had reestablished the friendship they had begun several years ago when Rune first came to the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry. Rune had been the only girl AV Geek at her high school, but it was not that shared interest that had deepened their friendship. Larry was a good listener, a perceptive if reticent advisor and a gentle soul. Rune liked him, plain and simple.
Larry leaned close to Rune, as if to whisper in her ear, and then backed off suddenly, looking suspiciously around the room. Then he leaned back toward her again. "This place might be bugged," he whispered, so quietly Rune could hardly hear him, "Can you spare time for . . . " he paused, looking at his watch, "how about dinner? King David’s?"
"You're not going to haul me off in a dark alley and murder me, are you?" Rune asked, jokingly. A small shiver ran up her spine. She'd known Larry Thompson for more than four years, and he did not strike her as a murderer. Larry was unapologetically gay, swishy gay. He didn't dress to the nines like some of the gays Rune had met in San Francisco. He wore baggy old-man pants, baggy old-man suspenders, a ratty old dress shirt with frayed cuffs, and a ratty old suit jacket. He was greying and balding and his thin hair hung in wisps about his slightly baggy face. His eyes, however, were intense, dark grey and full of life and intelligence.
Rune thought of Larry as "sweet." She could think of no one nicer than Larry. But suddenly, she also thought of him as a possible suspect in the murder of four professors. Silly of course, but why else would he be threatening her? But they were Cornell professors and he was at ESF. She felt slightly confused and disoriented, but rose and followed Larry out of her office and down the stairs of Illick to walk through the Syracuse University Campus and down the hill to Marshall Street.
They made it to King David’s new door to the upstairs, walking down from campus, without Rune's being dragged into a dark alley, though they had passed several dark alleys with young hipsters squatting and smoking cigarettes behind decorative wrought-iron fences. Rune laughed at her own fears, but she still had a creepy feeling.
King David's had just moved upstairs after years and years downstairs. Word was that Chipotle’s had offered King David’s a deal too good to refuse. Upstairs, it was the same as it always had been downstairs, and Larry chose a table in the back, away from the doors and windows, where the light was low. He examined the other patrons. "Pat yourself down," he said. "I'd do it for you, but I wouldn't want you to think I'm coming on to you." He said this with great solemnity, and Rune had to laugh.
"You're kidding, right? Is this some kind of joke? Halloween is still almost two months away."
"No, I'm not kidding. Pat yourself down. I just want to be sure."
"What am I looking for?"
"A tiny mic like this," Larry said, holding out a miniature microphone.
"Really?" Rune sounded worried, even to herself.
"Don't worry," Larry said, "I've disabled this one."
Rune found no hidden mics, and they sat down. Larry ordered her a sampler platter and himself a veggie sampler.
While they were waiting for the food, Larry leaned over and whispered to Rune, "You know, don’t you, that Dr. Cailex (), one of the four professors from Cornell who were murdered . . . I mean who died, was my lover."
Rune sat up straight and looked at Larry. Although he was clearly gay in his speech and mannerisms, she had always thought of him as asexual. Never had she seen him on or off campus with a partner. It was hard to imagine him with a lover. Not that she wanted to imagine it in too much detail.
"Were you down at Cornell? I thought you were a permanent fixture here. I thought you'd been here forever."
"I've been here twelve years. I couldn't stand being at Cornell after what happened to Cailex. Dr. Otis got me the job here. I came primarily for Eilyn." He said, pronouncing the name “AY-lin.”
"Eilyn? Dr. Otis's wife?"
"Yeah, we were . . . um . . . close . . . friends.!" Larry turned brilliant scarlet.
"Larry!" Rune exclaimed. Larry turned his face away, and when he finally turned back, he had composed himself.
“Moving right along . . .” Larry said, “What I wanted to tell you is that someone around here is not going to be happy that you’re poking your nose into something they consider not your business. Seriously, Rune, it could be dangerous.”
“That someone couldn’t be you, could it?” Rune asked, smiling. “Where we you the week of August 19th, thirteen years ago?”
“I was in North Carolina with my mother who had a brain tumor. I was there most of that summer, and there are hundreds of witnesses who saw me that week, because they had a big fund raiser to raise money to help my Mom pay for her medical bills. She was a social worker who had helped many families in the area, and they turned out in droves. I was on stage helping my mother to stand.”
“Oh dear,” Rune said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. What happened to your Mom?”
“They raised enough money for the operation, but when the doctors opened up her skull, the tumor was bigger than they thought it was. It had spread throughout more than half her brain. They took out what they could and closed her up again. Before the swelling had even gone down, she fell from the hospital fire escape—or jumped. She died.”
“I’m so sorry, Larry.”
“It was the same day Cailex died,” he said.
Rune got up, went around the table, and hugged Larry. He buried his face against her belly. His shoulders trembled. Run stroked his back. A few tears came to her eyes. She always seemed to feel the pain and grief of others more strongly than most people appeared to.
The meals came, and Rune sat back down. They ate a few minutes in silence.
“But Larry, why did you tell me not to ask questions? I was just curious how four renowned mycologists who should have known better could actually have poisoned themselves. I only wanted to turn over a few stones.”
“Some stones are better left unturned,” Larry said. There was a stubborn set to his jaw that Rune never seen before.
“You didn’t kill them?” she asked.
“No,” he said, “but someone did. I’m absolutely sure of it.” Again, that shiver. The cold fingers up her spine.
“Why are you warning me?”
“Because I like you. I care about you. I don’t want anything untoward to happen to you.”
“And you think it might?”
“Yes. If you keep poking around, yes.”
“But it happened at Cornell, not here.”
“No, it happened in the mountains, up in the Adirondacks. On a backpacking trip. It was a long backpacking trip. Several people here were involved in various ways.”
“Rune,” Larry said sharply, “Leave it! Leave it alone.”
“Okay, Larry. I’ll be more careful.” Rune decided to move her questioning undercover. “Maybe.”
“Don’t be more careful, Rune. Stop. Give it up entirely.” Rune nodded, but was unconvinced. Larry stared at her.
Rune shook her head a bit. She couldn’t help her self. Larry shook his. They stared into each other’s eyes with such intensity that finally, Rune had to look away.