This one was my second entry into the Coveted Dead Bird event the year the theme was It’s all Relative. I was told the title would have won for Best Title, but my other entry won 1st place and took the Coveted Dead Bird, so I wasn’t eligible for the other awards. Sigh… I do like this title.
A reminder: Coveted Dead Bird stories have to take place in or near California’s Central Valley, follow the theme, and have a crime.
E(vil) = M(urder) x C(ovetousness)2
A screech of brakes and a sickening thud interrupted our discussion. Spencer and I stood to look out the window of the Starbucks across the street from Fresno State.
“Oh God.” He dropped his drink on the floor and ran out the door. I followed, dialing 911 on my cell phone.
I reached the street just seconds after Spencer and found him cradling Emma and talking to her.
“Wake up, please Emma, be okay. Please.” His voice, thick with emotion, continued until sirens signaled the arrival of help. I stood nearby, not wanting to believe the truth of what I had glimpsed out the window of the coffee shop. As paramedics lifted Emma out of Spencer’s arms, I tried to remember the exact sequence of earlier events.
My reflection in the computer screen danced as I typed in my notes. The equation for caffeine plus chocolate on my tee shirt stood out clearly against the dark monitor. C8H10N4HO2O2 + C64H128O2 = LIFE. I loved this shirt and was thrilled when I found it in the same color that morning on clearance in the Kennel Bookstore. Mine looked a little frayed at the neck and sleeves. I smoothed out a wrinkle and returned my attention to the keyboard.
I jumped and looked up to see who had slammed the door to the math lab. Professor Blossom stood just inside the room.
"I'm sorry, Miss Hayes," he said. "It slipped. I didn't mean to startle you."
"It's okay. Are you all right?" He looked ... not disheveled exactly. Maybe just like he’d grabbed the nearest jacket in his closet. His clothes matched, but only because his whole wardrobe coordinated. I could tell he hadn't cared when he put this outfit together. Professor Blossom never looked anything less than cool and unruffled, even on the hottest days of the year. Which in Fresno occurred with regular frequency each summer. A big man, the professor stood over six feet tall and even though his name’s Blossom, he’s no pansy. A brilliant mathematician, he could find any flaw in my formulas with a glance.
“I'm fine," he answered.
“I didn’t know you were back in town,” I said. “How was the conference in Austria?”
“Busy.” He moved to the blackboard and began chalking an equation. I shrugged and returned to my own work.
California State University Fresno was off for the summer. Since I live locally, I was coming in to the math lab, trying to get a head start on my senior project.
Professor Blossom began muttering under his breath and I looked at him. He was really acting odd today.
Another crash interrupted me. This time I smiled at the man in the doorway.
"Liesl. How are you?"
"Do you mind?" The professor looked up from the board, scowling.
"Sorry, sir." Spencer lowered his voice and slid into the seat next to me. "What's his problem?"
"I don’t know. He slammed in here a few minutes ago."
“You want to go get a Frappuccino?”
“I’d love it.” I saved my work and shut down the computer. “How’s your summer going?” I enjoyed Spencer’s company and missed him since we went our separate ways in April.
He shrugged. “I’m working too much.”
By the time we reached the Starbucks across Shaw, we were chatting like we had just seen each other yesterday. Instead of three months ago.
We placed our orders and waited for the blending and dispensing to be done so we could sit and catch up.
“I’ve missed you,” I said, as we settled into the plush armchairs in the corner.
He smiled that drop-dead-gorgeous smile that showed his perfect even teeth. It always amazed me that someone who looked as spectacular as Spencer could be such a genuinely nice guy. “Likewise,” he said. “Whose idea was it to break up anyway? Oh yeah, yours.” He said it with a tease in his voice.
“Depends.” His voice grew serious.
“I need your help, Liesl.”
“Mine? Of course, whatever you want.”
“Hey you two. What’s up?” A voice cut through the intimate air we’d pumped into our corner.
“Hi.” Spencer stood and took Emma’s hand, pulling her down onto the arm of his chair. “Where’ve you been?”
“Looking for you.” They exchanged a look that said what I thought Spencer had been about to ask me was my illusion. Oh well. We’d tried it once and it didn’t work so clearly we were meant to be friends. But he was so beautiful to look at. Now I watched him gaze into someone else’s eyes.
“I wondered if you could help me later. I’ve got an error in one of my formulas and I can’t find it.” Emma was one of the girls you’d love to hate, but just couldn’t. Short in stature, like me, but no one ever called her shrimp. She stood and moved like a tall woman, able to make cutoffs and a tee shirt seem like a fashion statement. And she was smart. Able to figure quantum physics like Superman leaped tall buildings. Effortlessly, that is.
“Sure.” Spencer smiled at her and again I felt like an intruder.
Emma left to order her drink and Spence and I chatted another minute.
“Anyway, I wanted to ask you something.” Spencer swirled the straw around in his Caramel Frappuccino, blending the whipped cream into the coffee slush.
“Anything.” I leaned forward.
“Ouch, watch it!” We both snapped our heads to the commotion. Emma stood nearby, a coffee-colored stain spreading across her sleeveless, crisp, white blouse as a boy in khaki cargo shorts tried to mop up spilled coffee spreading across the tiles and gathering in the grout lines.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” The kid sounded ready to cry.
Emma set her teeth and sighed. “Be more careful.” She rejoined us in the corner, a half-empty cardboard cup in one hand and a napkin in the other.
“Now what?” she asked. “I have an appointment with Professor Blossom to talk about my thesis in twenty minutes.”
“Here.” I dug around in my backpack for the match to my tee shirt that I’d purchased earlier. “It’s clean even if it’s not very professional. We’re about the same size.”
“Thanks, Liesl. That’s really nice of you.” Emma took the shirt, set her cup down and headed to the restroom.
“Anyway, what did you want to ask me?” I tried to make eye contact again with Spencer.
“This is the one hundred year anniversary of Einstein’s annus mirabilis,” he said, referring to 1905 when Albert Einstein had published his theories of the physics of light and relativity. “I wondered if you would write an article for the Bulldog Newspaper.”
“Oh.” I sipped my drink, considering how to draw him out again. The interruptions had taken a toll and we’d lost our earlier ease.
“Okay,” I agreed. It was a family legend that we were descended from Albert Einstein. He and his first wife had had a baby daughter before they married and it was commonly assumed they had given her up for adoption since she disappeared after her birth. Einstein and Mileva had married later, had two sons, then divorced.
My great-grandmother had been adopted in Switzerland in 1902. She grew up, married and immigrated to the United States. I was named for her. My family did seem to be gifted in the sciences, but no one had ever bothered to try and trace our ancestry beyond Switzerland. We didn’t know if there would be adoption records going back more than a hundred years. So it remained an amusing story to tell others. I had told Spencer and some friends last spring when we worked the beerock booth during Vintage Days.
Emma returned, scooped up her bag and coffee cup, kissed Spencer, hugged me and headed back to campus. The brakes followed by tires squealing brought us running to Emma’s side. Now I stood, trying to concentrate and remember what I had seen, if I could identify the car. At least by color or make and model. But it was a blur.
Ahhh. A green blur.
I hurried over to the officers to tell them. They wrote down what I said, but didn’t seem to be in a hurry to send out an APB or even to radio other officers in Fresno to watch for a green car.
I didn’t tell them it looked like Professor Blossom behind the wheel. It couldn’t have been him. He was supposed to be in his office, waiting for Emma to keep her appointment. Not in a car running her down on Shaw Avenue.
Emma was loaded onto a stretcher and into the ambulance. The paramedics didn’t let Spencer climb in. He turned around, looking lost. I waved and he slowly joined me.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Call her family.” I handed him my cell phone. “I’ve got to go see someone.” I left him standing in the parking lot, looking bereft. But I’d been seized with an urgency to make sure the professor was in his office.
I jogged across campus and was soon puffing my way into the Peters Business Building. I leaned against the wall to catch my breath before climbing the stairs. A minute later I knocked on the door with the brass nameplate that said Professor Albert Blossom.
Relief flooded me as the door opened and the professor stood in front of me. But it was quickly replaced by dread as I watched shock spread across his face. Before I could turn, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the room.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “Why aren’t you-” He stopped talking, but his grip tightened until I winced.
“Why aren’t I what?” I tried to twist away, but his fingers had me in a vise. “Was it you? In the car?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice grew calm, but his grip didn’t lessen.
“You hit Emma.” I knew it like I knew my name.
“I thought it was you.” He blurted out what I recognized as the truth. “She had on your shirt.”
“Why?” It sounded stupid, even to me. But my mind refused to form more than one word thoughts. “Why?” I repeated.
He didn’t answer.
I tried to move back.
He yanked my arm, pulling me off balance. I took advantage of my momentum and tried to topple on to the floor. But his grasp was so firm that I did little more than dangle at the end of his arm.
“Cut it out.” He pulled me into an embrace and spoke into my ear. “Do as I say and everything will be okay.”
I nodded, wanting him to think I believed him. But I knew nothing would be okay. Emma hadn’t been moving. And it was supposed to be me on the gurney.
“I still don’t understand why.” If I could get him talking, just like in the books, maybe I’d have a chance. Criminals always wanted to brag about how smart they were. And in books and movies it was always their downfall.
Thankfully, Professor Blossom didn’t seem to have watched the same movies I did because he told me the whole story.
He had been walking by the booth at Vintage Days and overheard me tell my family legend. It was a fable to me, interesting, but not with any real impact on my life. But it shook him to the essence of himself.
His family had the same story.
“I researched the records. I even traveled to Switzerland last week after the conference.” His gaze was no longer focused on me but on something behind me and far away. “And I found it. My grandmother was illegitimate all right. And she was adopted. But her parents were Grete Elser and Albert Isenberg. Not Einstein.”
“But so what? Who cares?”
“I also found your grandmother’s records. She was born to Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein of Bern, Switzerland.” His voice got lower as he leaned into me. I tried to tilt backwards, to get him out of my personal space. But he bent forward. “Everything I am and everything I have is because I thought I was Albert Einstein’s great-grandson. And I won’t give it up.”
“But to kill me?”
“I’ll also publish your senior project. Murder or plagiarism, it’s all relative. Just as your great-grandfather figured.”
He pulled his office door open and headed down the hall, still dragging me. I kicked and struggled, but it was like fighting Jello, I couldn’t find a spot to hit. He just hitched me up a little, till I was tucked under his arm like a wiggling Dachshund.
“Stop!” The voice came from behind us, but Professor Blossom just trotted faster instead of turning around.
Footsteps pounded behind us.
The professor dropped me and broke into a run. I stayed on the floor as a body shot past me and jumped onto Blossom’s back. He went down hard, hitting his head against the wall and landing on his right arm. Good, now he’ll know how it feels. He lay still.
“Are you okay?” Spencer knelt beside me.
“What are you doing here?” I ask the most inane questions at the oddest times.
“I followed you to return your phone.” He held it out to me. “I heard him talking inside his office. I called the cops. They were still across the street and are on their way. But I didn’t want to let him get away.”
“Thank you!” I hugged him and held on. “He’s crazy. He wanted to kill me because I’m related to Einstein and he’s not.”
“He ran Emma over because he thought she was you?”
“I said he was crazy.”
Spencer stood and walked down the hallway until he was even with the professor’s head. Then he drew his foot back and kicked with all his strength.
The police arrived right after that and took our statements. The professor had severe head injuries that were attributed to his fall. When he woke, he claimed he had no idea what his name was and had no memory of running Emma down.
He also denied ever thinking he was related to Albert Einstein, the father of relativity.