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Authors: Margaret Maron

One Coffee With

BOOK: One Coffee With
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Copyright ©
2011 by
Margaret Maron

Original publication in 1982.
All rights reserved.

All characters in this publication are fictitious.

Any resemblance to real persons, living or
is purely coincidental.

For Joe

Introduction to the eBook Edition

Up until the late 1970s, I thought of myself as a short story writer, and by short, I meant nothing longer than five or ten double-spaced pages, or 1500-3000 words max. Although the glory days of magazine fiction, when writers were paid four or five thousand for a story and could live on that for a year, were over, a short story for the “slicks” could still earn at least two thousand and there were a dozen or more markets. The mystery magazines—the “pulps”—paid by the word and usually capped out at 8¢ a word. Clearly I was not expecting to earn a living with my writing.

On the other hand, those sporadic checks were very nice and I had started to sell almost everything I submitted when the bottom dropped out of the market. Magazines began to fold left and right and those that survived discovered that non-fiction articles could be written in-house more cheaply, and that only a few subscribers would cancel because there was no fiction.

Instead of six or eight mystery magazines, we were suddenly left with only two:
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
ed Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
That’s when I first toyed with the idea of writing a novel even though the thought of filling up that many pages with a single story quite intimidated me.

I had written a longish (for me) short story set in a college art department and I had created a homicide detective with a Danish background, named Bohr in honor of Nils Bohr, whose biography I had recently read. I sent it off to

It came back.

In those days
ran a “novelette” in each issue, so I doubled the word count and sent it off.

It came back.

By now, I was getting more into the plot. I had worked as a secretary in one of the NY City University art departments and had been fascinated by the cavalier manner in which etching acids and photography chemicals were left unlocked. A poisoner could have wiped out half the college with very little effort.

This was also when women were starting to move up in the ranks of the NYPD. Female lieutenants and captains were still a novelty and resented by many of the rank and file male officers. The problems a woman would face intrigued me and the male Bohr morphed into the female Sigrid Harald (still of Danish descent.)

Because I enjoy series characters, I knew from the beginning that she would be one, and I gave her what was to me an interesting back story—a Southern mother and a NY father who had been killed in the line of duty shortly after making plainclothes detective. The mother would be a beautiful career photojournalist, the father tall and handsome and slightly egotistical. Their daughter would be the proverbial ugly duckling: uncomfortable in her skin, ill-at-ease in social situations, but thoroughly competent professionally. I knew most of the back story, which arcs through the eight books of this series, an arc which I will not discuss here because I do not want to spoil it for first-time readers, but each book gives a little bit more information about her dead father and his former partner.

Eventually I doubled the magazine-length novelette to make it a book novelette of about 30,000 words and sent it to an agent someone had recommended. The agent said he liked the characters, liked the setting, liked the story, “But it’s too short. Nobody’s buying novelettes. Now if you could double it . . .”

After much thought, I interpolated the Karoly subplot, which did not exist in the first three versions, and I finally had a book-length novel.

Having done it once, I entered in on a second, then a third. As I write this, I have just finished writing my twenty-seventh novel. I remain slightly astonished.

Each of my books is written in what is (and was then) the current “now.” In the late 70s, books (and police reports) were written on typewriters. In
One Coffee With
, Lt. Harald and her squad typed all their reports. Telephones were tethered to the handset with a curly cord and numbers were manually dialed. No one had a cell phone. By the time
Fugitive Colors
, the eighth and final book of the series, was written, typewriters were a thing of the past, and Sigrid wrote up her reports on a computer. If she owned a mobile, I was not aware of it.

You have downloaded this book to a device that was science fiction in 1979. Novels printed on paper are beginning to be referred to as “the physical book” as opposed to the electronic one.

For me, fourteen years had passed between the first book and the last. For Sigrid, it was only one short tumultuous year.

Try not to let technology and societal norms get between you and the page. Suspend your disbelief. Enjoy!

Margaret Maron
January 2011


Few institutions of higher learning are content that their faculties do nothing but teach. In the name of “academic community,” Administration arranges committees, faculty-student teas, receptions to meet the newest trustee, and interdisciplinary seminars. Departments that submit to this nonsense unquestioningly are rewarded with buildings of their own or, at the very least, whole floors of contiguous classrooms and well-furnished offices.

In every college, though, there is always one department that doesn’t give a damn for academic community, that adopts a laissez-faire attitude toward Administration’s extracurricular entanglements and subsequently finds itself jammed higgledy-piggledy into the college’s leftover spaces.

The Art Department at Vanderlyn College was so thoroughly a case in point that when rumors of murder first spread across campus that spring morning, the other less flamboyant disciplines sat back in smug conviction that
such a calamity could never happen in their orderly domains. Psychology alluded darkly to the dangers of indulging Freudian aggressions, Chemistry proclaimed itself appalled that lethal substances had been treated with such casual negligence, while Home Ec. polished its elegant china tea service and managed to imply that that’s what came of drinking cafeteria coffee from a Styrofoam cup.


The day began normally enough.

Although financially besieged on all sides, New York still offered her resident, subway-riding children an education that was virtually free. Vanderlyn was one of eleven senior colleges that formed the City University of New York, and its enrollment alone was more than forty thousand, counting undergraduate, graduate and evening students.

Built in the late nineteenth century when the city still had open spaces around its edges, Vanderlyn College occupied what was now a rather expensive slice of urban real estate two blocks wide by eight blocks long. It resembled any other institution of higher learning, except that none of its stone or brick buildings was a dormitory or faculty residence. There was the obligatory grassy common crossed by patterned brick walks with a large fountain in its center; there were tall oaks and maples and a curtain of ivy to soften the north wall of the ugly old late-Victorian library; there was even a postage-stamp-sized athletic field tucked in next to the East River and a graceful trellised promenade, draped in Wisteria, from which one could watch the river traffic float by while catching up on obscure battles in the Hundred Years War.

Spring sunlight fell on sleepy-eyed students straggling up from the subway’s depths and through the iron gates to eight-o’clock Classes, while on the third floor of Van Hoeen Hall, Assistant Professor Marvin Lowenheim (B.A., Pittsburgh; M.A., Michigan; Ph.D., Columbia) readied himself to face a cowed class of freshmen. Years of conducting English Composition 1.2 at eight o’clock in the morning had transformed a gentle Spenser scholar into a tyrannical martinet, who frowned as he distributed rigorously graded compositions.

“It seems we shall need more drill on ‘Unity and Coherence in Paragraph Construction,’” he told them grimly.

Another ordinary Wednesday morning had begun.


The Art Department began Wednesday morning normally enough by following its own eccentric course. Just after eight o’clock a large open truck arrived at the side of Van Hoeen Hall by way of the service road that circled the campus. From the fourth-floor window above the truck, a thick steel bar extended itself hydraulically. A heavy-duty block-and-tackle apparatus was attached to its end, and as a steel cable was let down to the truck bed, a small crowd gathered to watch the fun.

The driver of the truck was a wiry young black man who wore faded slacks, a ragged sweat shirt and expensive polarized sunglasses. He scrambled out of the cab and onto its top to direct a pickup crew composed of his two best students and several coveralled workmen from Buildings and Grounds.

“Watch it, baby!” he yelled. “The padding’s slipped, and the cable’s going to scar the H.”

The girl student, redheaded, freckled and agile in beat-up sneakers and blue jeans, readjusted the padding. “You’re acting like a nervous daddy in an obstetrics ward, Sam,” she gibed. “Quit worrying. We haven’t lost a piece of sculpture yet.”

“Nor a sculptor,” grinned her classmate, a tall blond youth, who stood in the open window above, awaiting his instructor’s signal to haul away.

Sam Jordan (Instructor, Sculpture and Predental) was not amused. He personally checked the cable’s fastening and secured the guy rope, which he tossed to one of the workmen standing on the ground. Then he climbed back up to his perch on the truck cab and anxiously surveyed the scene.

“Okay, take it up, but for crissake go easy,” he commanded.

Slowly and ponderously the heavy steel object rose into the air. Sunlight glittered on its mirrorbright surfaces, then gasps followed by snickers arose from the surrounding loungers as they realized that the piece of
sculpture consisted of four six-foot-tall letters welded together into a graphic expletive whose meaning was totally at variance with the sculpture’s immaculate surface sheen.

“Hey, man! More tension on the guy rope!” Jordan shouted as the steel letters swung too near Van Hoeen’s rough stone wall.

Up past the first floor, then past the second, floated the massive word.

“What’s going on here?” suddenly demanded a querulous voice.

Sam Jordan looked down to see the deputy chairman of his department, Professor Riley Quinn, regarding the operation with distaste.

“You speaking to me?” he asked belligerently from atop the truck’s cab.

“Ah, Jordan. Of course!” said Professor Quinn with acid geniality. “I should have recognized this newest addition to your oeuvre. Polished steel! Does this represent a shift away from—let’s see now—I believe you called it ‘the uncompromised honesty’ of black iron?”

The deputy chairman was of medium height and wore a hat that shaded his eyes quite as effectively as Jordan’s sunglasses. He was always exquisitely groomed and tailored and, even when physically looking up at someone, managed to give the impression of looking down his nose. He was doing it now, a sardonic smile on his lips as he said, “I thought I should make sure this was a legitimate piece being taken up to the gallery.” He paused two beats. “Nevertheless, don’t let me interrupt you.”

Before Jordan could find a reply, Professor Quinn noticed that the workman on the guy rope had slackened his hold, and that the sculptured word hovered dangerously close to the wall.

“You there! Watch what you’re doing!” he ordered sharply.

The workman turned and glared at him. “Who you think you bossing what to do?” he cried in heavily accented anger.

“Oh, God!” groaned Quinn, recognizing nemesis in brown coveralls.

“Yah! You should call on God to forgive you!” agreed the workman.

“Listen, you dumb hunky! Watch what you’re doing!” cried the suddenly enraged Quinn.

“You call me hunky! You dare, you—you thieving fattyú!”

Sam Jordan was startled by the usually urbane Riley Quinn’s loss of composure. This supposedly lofty academic had spoken like a common guttersnipe. But the situation was too perilous to worry about minor cracks in the deputy chairman’s facade.

“What the hell’s going on!” he yelled at the workman. “Will you watch what you’re doing?”

He was too late.

The dot of the sculpture’s lowercase i was a fifteen-pound hollow metal ball that hung from the left cross-bar of the capital T by a slender three-foot chain. As the enraged workman shook his fist at Professor Quinn, the chain began to swing like a pendulum. The dot, now converted into a miniature wrecking ball, crashed through a third-floor window, putting a halt to Professor Lowenheim’s remarks on unity and coherence.

“See what you make me do?” screamed the workman. “I kill you for this! I punch your nose in, you
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BOOK: One Coffee With
12.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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