Saturday, January 21, 2012

Crimerwriter's Debut Dagger competition

OK, so I decided to enter the Crimewriter's Debut Dagger Competition with my NanOWriMo novel.  It was expensive to enter.  Here is the entry, which includes the first 1 3/4 chapters and an expanded synopsis (wish me luck!):

Chapter 1:  Back Off
Tuesday, September 6, 5:17 PM,

             "Rune," Larry Thompson said, "back off.  You're asking too many questions and putting yourself in danger."
                   Rune looked up from her computer in her closet-sized office to see Larry looking over her shoulder. On her 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."
“What is this, some third rate pulp fiction novel?  Who are you, and what did you do with my friend Larry?” Rune asked, half joking, half sarcastic.
                   "Why are you worrying about this old accident?" Larry asked, pointing at the clipping. “I know Dr. McHaggerty’s teaching-assistant training sessions this week have piqued your interest, but that accident was thirteen years ago.”
                   “McHaggerty’s been talking about this for years,” Rune said. “He talked about it when I originally took Projects Mycology like four years ago. He talked about it again two years ago when I assisted during 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 Projects Mycology 158 students to understand and avoid.  I think it was no accident; I think it was murder.  There is no statute of limitations on murder."
                   "You think they were murdered.”  It was not a question.  “The police insisted it was an accident.  They wouldn't listen when a number of us, including me, suggested murder.  We went round and round about it."
                   "If you thought it was murder then, why are you telling me to back off and butt out now? And why are you calling it an accident?  And Larry, are you actually threatening me?"
                   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.
She was not exactly afraid.  It was hard to be afraid of Larry; she liked him too much. 
Already, since Rune arrived for Teaching Assistant (TA) Training just over a week ago, Rune and Larry had reestablished the friendship they had begun when Rune first came to the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry.  Larry was the head audio-visual guru at ESF, the college of Environmental Sciences and Forestry and Rune had been the only girl AV Geek at her high school.  That brought her into contact with Larry at ESF, but it was not that shared interest that had deepened their friendship. Larry was a good listener, a perceptive if usually reticent advisor and a gentle soul. Rune liked him, plain and simple.  And for some reason, Larry seemed to like Rune.
            Rune was pleased that her new office was right next door to Larry’s.  Besides being a good friend, Larry liked to bake cookies in his lab. 
Larry’s office, like Rune’s, was on the second, or entomology, floor of Illick Hall on the ESF campus.  The offices were just a short jog from the elevators. It was a convenient location for a man who spent much of his time pushing around carts of equipment. The door to Larry’s office, lab and AV storeroom was right next to hers.  If one stood in the little alcove off the main hallway, there were three doors almost together. The one on the left was Eilyn Otis’s. The center one, which was at right angles to hers and facing the hall, was Larry’s, and Rune’s door was at right angles to Larry’s and across from Eilyn’s.  The doors were fire doors, dark industrial grey metal.  No windows in the doors.  Neither Rune’s office nor Eilyn’s office had windows.  Rune was sure her office had been designed as a closet, and Eilyn’s as a small storeroom. 
Larry’s room had been designed as a lab, and had lots of windows, lab tables and glass-fronted shelves, gas fixtures, a desk and lots of storage space.  Although the main room was light and airy, the small office alcove where his desk was located was usually dark and cluttered.
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 more than four years, and he did not strike her as a murderer. Larry was unapologetically gay, swishy gay.  Not that a gay was incapable of murder, but Larry was too nice. He had a bit of a lisp, a way of standing when at ease and limp gay wrists when he wasn’t pushing equipment around, but 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 and greying cuffs, and a ratty old suit jacket.  He was grizzled 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 she knew who was nicer than Larry.  Suddenly, however, 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, if in fact, that was what he was doing?  But the professors were from Cornell and he was at ESF; they were mycologists and he was an AV man.  Cornell was over an hour away, more than 50 miles.  It was too far for easy friendship between the two schools.  Rune 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.
                   Walking down from campus, they made it to King David’s new door, 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 on the ground floor.  Word was that Chipotle’s had offered King David’s a deal too good to refuse.  Upstairs, passing the new tables and chairs, and Larry chose a table in the back, away from the doors and windows, where the light was low.  He carefully scanned 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 close and whispered to Rune, "You know, don’t you, that Dr. Calyx Karklins, 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 hi                                                                                                                                                                                          m 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 Calyx.  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 fundraiser to help my Mom pay for her medical bills.  She was a social worker who had helped many families in the area, and people 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 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.  Outside her window.  She died.”
                   “I’m so sorry, Larry.”
                   “It was the same day Calyx died,” he said. He looked bereft.
                   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.
                   “It would be in your best interest to believe me,” Larry whispered softly, still looking intently at Rune.  His eyes seemed to grow huge as she looked back at him, as if they were trying to tell her something, if she could just understand what it was.

Chapter 2:   Dr. McHaggerty, Lesson 1, and the Four Dead Professors Again
Chapter flyleaf:  illustration of Destroying Angel, Amanita phalloides
First day of classes, Wednesday, September 7

       “Four world-renowned mycology professors at Cornell died of mushroom poisoning after a joint mushroom-collecting trip on a backpacking expedition,” Dr. Colin McHaggerty said, in booming voice, looking out over the faces in the Marshall Auditorium.  On two of the three screens behind him, images of a grinning Grim Reaper holding glowing white mushrooms appeared. In the center screen was an enlarged copy of a newspaper article with the headline, "Four Renowned Cornell Mycologists Dead of Mushroom Poisoning!" It was the same article that Rune had pulled up on her computer when Larry had come in to give his dire warning about her questions.  Fog drifted out onto the stage, curling, wafting and thickening. It poured in a milky waterfall off the stage into the first row of students, spreading into the audience.  The lights dimmed slightly and the room seemed to grow suddenly cold. Rune shivered.
       McHaggerty paused dramatically.  He wore black pants, a black shirt, a black tie with white mushrooms on it and a light-weight black cape that fluttered, lifting high behind him in an unseen breeze.  His thick, wavy, grizzled and somewhat wild red hair and beard created a red-gold halo around his face.  The already low lights in the auditorium dimmed to near darkness and a light came up under McHaggerty’s face, shadowing his eyes making his face look skeletal. A groan rose from the students in the audience, almost a shriek.
       “Apparently,” McHaggerty said, “many different kinds of mushrooms were collected that day.”  He paused again, turning his face from left to right.  The students could no longer see his eyes, which were deep in shadow as if there were only empty sockets.  “Including Amanita phalloides, the Destroying Angel!” He thundered. Photographs of the destroying angel mushroom, glowing white against a black background, appeared on the screen.
       Another long pause followed and then the lights came up to full brightness and the light under McHaggerty’s face disappeared.  Two warm yellow spotlights appeared on his face from above.
       “Some mushrooms, “ Dr. McHaggerty, said, smiling widely, his voice now cheerful and light “are delicious and wonderfully edible.”  On the screens to the left and right appeared photos of edible mushrooms, the common garden mushroom, morels, shaggy manes, chicken of the woods.  Each was labeled with the common and Latin names.  In the center pane was a photograph of a plate of cooked mushrooms, garnished with parsley and set on a red and white checked tablecloth.
       “Some mushrooms,” McHaggerty said, and the lights dimmed to half-brightness, “while not poisonous, are distinctly unpalatable or inedible.” More labeled photos appeared.
       “And some mushrooms,” McHaggerty continued, as the lights fell to darkness again and the light under his face came up, “are deadly poisonous.”  The screens to the left and right showed the destroying angel, the death cap, the fly agaric and other deadly mushrooms.  The Grim Reaper came up on the center, holding white mushrooms in his right hand and the limp body of a deceased victim in his left arm.
       McHaggerty paused again.  The lights slowly came back up, and the chin light faded away.  McHaggerty, moving slowly, pulled on a pair of thin beige rubber gloves.  From a shelf in the podium, he took a handful of white mushrooms.  The three screens behind him showed a close-up video of his face and gloved hands, holding the mushrooms.
       “Amanita phalloides,” he said, thundering again, “is so poisonous that even touching it can be dangerous.  Some of the toxins can be transferred to the skin, and from the skin to the mouth or to the food you are going to eat.”  Behind him, the three images each show a different photograph of Amanita phalloides, labeled with common names, and the Latin name.  “Amanita phalloides is a common mushroom and can be found in woods, fields and in your own backyard.”
       Again, Dr. McHaggerty paused dramatically.  Then he walked out from behind the lectern, strode to the edge of the stage, and leaned out so far over the edge toward the audience that it seemed he might tumble off the stage into the laps of the students in the front row.  He was still holding the Amanita phalloides in his right hand, gesticulating with it, and the closest students leaned visibly away from him.  Their faces looked stricken.  Rune, sitting onstage with half the other teaching assistants, elbowed Bart on one side and Cassie on the other and they all snickered and giggled, covering their mouths with their hands.  No one was looking toward them.  All eyes were riveted on Dr. McHaggerty.  It was the first day of classes at the beginning of the semester in September.  The students, looking amazingly young, had never seen McHaggerty in action.  They’d heard through the grapevine, as students always did, and in increasing numbers, that the class was good, but they hadn’t known just how riveting it would be.
Rune thought Dr. McHaggerty was a little overly dramatic, but that was better than Dr. Johnson, who taught plant and mushroom anatomy.  He stood at the front of the room with his lecture notes in his hand and read them in a monotone.  By the end of the class, 83 percent of the students were asleep.  He didn’t publish his class notes online, either, like McHaggerty did.  But some kid front and center always managed to get the notes and put them online for the kids who fell asleep. Besides, Rune liked a little drama and tended to overdramatize things herself.
       “Can anyone tell me,” McHaggerty asked, “how those four doomed professors could have avoided dying of mushroom poisoning?”

Death Angel Synopsis

When Rune Carmichael first returns to the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry to study for a PhD and work as Dr. McHaggerty’s teaching assistant, McHaggerty reminds her of the deaths of four world-renowned Cornell University Mycology professors thirteen years earlier. The deaths seem suspicious to Rune, but as she begins to questions them, her AV guru friend, Larry Thompson warns her to let sleeping dogs lie. 

Meanwhile, Rune’s life suddenly revolves around Mycology Professor Colin McHaggerty.  Everyone seems to love McHaggerty, undergrads, parents, grad students, TAs, faculty and administration.  Rune loves him herself.  But the other professors, teaching assistants and even her own research project take a back seat to the all-encompassing McHaggerty.  The married McHaggerty seems almost to be courting Rune, taking her to lunch, to dinner and to the movies.  She is already pushing him away, when she learns that her best friend Jody is having an affair with McHaggerty and is having trouble breaking it off. 

When, after an upsetting incident in one of the female-TA apartments, McHaggerty and Eliza, one of the TAs, turn up in the hospital with mushroom poisoning, Rune refuses to believe the poisoning was “a terrible accident.” She recognizes that McHaggerty knows better than to poison Eliza and himself. 

Although busy with her teaching duties, research and classes, Rune begins to investigate the circumstances surrounding McHaggerty’s poisoning.  As she starts poking around, she receives a series of warnings.  First, she and her TA-partner, Bart eat pizza sprinkled with mind altering “Magic Mushrooms” from the Acropolis. She becomes frighteningly disoriented.  Someone wants to let them know, she realizes, how easily they could be poisoned.  Then someone smashes a truck into Rune on her motorcycle—hit and run. Other warnings include notes, letters and threats to “mind her own business.”  Rune survives the mushrooms and the crash and continues looking, forming an investigative team with Bart and some of the other TAs.

The team discovers that McHaggerty, whom they all believed to be well loved, has many enemies and that the college is rife with unsuspected excitement and sordid intrigue.  McHaggerty turns out to be a rabid Don Juan who has affairs with students, faculty, faculty wives and parents. Rune’s trust, damaged by a recent divorce, is further damaged by what she learns about McHaggerty and others at the college, but receives a boost from Silas, a lucky witness to the hit and run and from her TA-partner Bart. 

Rune and her team of students investigate many leads. First there is Angel, the enraged TA who tries to shoot McHaggerty when she finds out about his philandering. Then there are the husbands and lovers of all of McHaggerty’s liaisons.  There are jealous professors and angry administrators.  There are lovers who feel jilted and colleagues who feel cheated. The team tries to learn the possible alibis of all the suspects.  Then they scrutinize the ones without alibis.

Meanwhile, Rune learns more about the original thirteen-year old poisonings from Eilyn, who is a close friend of Larry’s and whose office is across the hall from Rune’s.  Eilyn was present at the original poisonings. But Eilyn is beat up and escapes to a women’s shelter.

Though the police offer little help, considering McHaggerty’s poisoning to be an accident, Rune continues searching. As far-fetched as it seems, she wonders if the current poisoning might be somehow linked to the 13-year-old quadruple murder.  And what, she wonders, is her friend Larry’s connection to all of this? 

Can Rune survive when an enraged murder suspect catches her digging through his private office files in his locked office at three AM?

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