Niccoldi lived alone in a decent-sized house not far from campus. It was walkable in a pinch, but he drove anyway. Walking was something he reserved for his leisure. He was a professor, not a peasant.
Between writing his book, preparing his lessons, grading student papers, watching television and the occasional drink with fellow faculty, Niccoldi had little problem filling his time. That was a good thing, too; had he not been so preoccupied, his loneliness might have gotten him in trouble. His wife had divorced him years ago and their daughter went out of state for college. The women who could match his intellect and achievements were stale and haughty and gray. It took young and vibrant and passionate to stoke his fire. In other words, a student.
The thought had crossed his mind on numerous occasions, though he had never acted on it. Ethically, he knew it was wrong. Pragmatically, he knew it would cost him his job. And yet, he just couldn’t see the real harm in it. After all, they were both adults. They would be serving each other’s needs. He would share his wisdom and experience and they their vitality. There was precedent upon precedent for it and it made good logical sense.
He had only recently begun to consider Amy Holden in this way. She was not an overtly beautiful girl. Wholesome, yes, and pretty enough, but with a slight build and too-thick eyebrows that did her face a disservice. Her intellect was similarly unexceptional. She was a good researcher, dedicated, and genuinely interested in the subject matter. However, she lacked a certain fire, a certain boldness historians need in order to confront established truths. Ah…fuck it. Not everyone needed to be a Howard Zinn these days. No, what ultimately drew Amy to him was their proximity. She met with him frequently after class. He picked up a few personal details (she was single, she could play the piano) and shared some as well. She was there and, he sensed, probably willing.
And now she was dead. Niccoldi hoped and prayed that her death was unrelated to her work for him. Let it be a crazed former boyfriend. A mugging gone wrong. A random lunatic. Anything but a path that led back to him….and Valence.
It was the dead professor and not the dead girl that Niccoldi contemplated the night after the murder. He sat at his desk in his study, a half-filled glass of iceless bourbon in one hand while he read over the notes Amy had so dutifully compiled. He paused and closed his eyes and tried to picture the man: his Robert Redford looks, his ever-changing Latin quote on the upper third of the blackboard, the way he walked up and down the rows of the classroom, stopping to call on the student he thought would least expect it. He was everyone’s favorite. Even those who struggled with the work, who cursed him for his arrogance, who rejected the ancient world he so faithfully glorified, loved him in the end.
And yet, he threw it all away. Why, Niccoldi wondered. The rumors had been that it had ended over an affair with a student and Niccoldi believed that at the time. Publically, it was what he suggested to others. Privately, he had his doubts. Surely, a man of Valence’s gifts would realize the foolishness of it. Surely, he would have exercised the utmost discretion even if he did pursue. And surely he would have been protected. Chancellor Hand would not have come down on him the way he did over a fling with Suzy Q. Nobody. No, it had to be someone important. Someone…
Niccoldi opened his eyes. There was an annoying, persistent scraping sound coming from somewhere overhead. Were it daylight, he would have dismissed it as a squirrel on the roof or maybe a bird. But at this hour?
He moved toward the window to investigate. The study was on the second floor of the house and the window overlooked a small stretch of yard and the neighbors’ property. Niccoldi opened it and peered out. He saw nothing but the dark of night.
The black blot of the boot swung down and caught him flush in the face. He felt his nose break and a tooth dislodge. Blood gushed as he went caterwauling backwards, the light carpet beneath him gathering raindrop-sized stains. Somehow, he stayed on his feet.
His vision blurry from the pain, Niccoldi saw a raincoat-clad figure swoop in through the open window. The attacker seized him by the arm and, grunting with effort, whipped him into a bookshelf. Niccoldi was able to turn slightly to dull the impact, but it did him little good. Pain shot through his right shoulder; texts from the upper shelves tumbled and battered the top of his head.
Hurt to the point of mindlessness, Niccoldi turned slowly and woozily and caught another blow – this one from the bourbon bottle – to the face. This time, he went down.
Floorbound and twitching in agony, Niccoldi gurgled blood. He offered a soundless prayer. He thought of his wife and daughter in happier times. He wordlessly apologized for getting Amy – and himself – into this mess.
The attacker knelt down in front of him. A gloved hand held an opened razor. Lifting his gaze against the pain, Niccoldi looked up and spotted a face he thought he recognized just before the shiny blade came down swiftly upon him.