The Crime of the Ancient Mariner
by C.E. Gee
Margaret enjoyed breaks in the third floor lounge. Tuesdays, early morning, after her 100 series class, Human Osteoarchaeology, the lounge was often unoccupied.
Margaret bought a cup of instant chai tea from the vending machine, strolled over to her favorite chair. The chair was far back in the southwest corner of the lounge, next to a window overlooking the quad.
It being early spring, oaks and elms were sprouting leaves. Margaret sipped her tea, enjoyed the view.
Another professor entered the lounge, bought a cup of coffee.
Margaret watched Professor Sears with interest. The old professor’s wife had died during the winter. Professor Sears looked as if he’d aged 20 years within the last few months.
Coffee cup carried in one trembling hand, Professor Sears shambled over to Margaret and asked, “May I join you, Margaret?”
The Archeology, Paleontology, and History Departments shared the same building. Professor Sears was a History Professor; to Margaret, the old professor looked the part. Tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, thick glasses, wingtip shoes — all were a cliché. Margaret smiled.
Professor Sears sat in the chair directly across from Margaret. With rheumy eyes, Professor Sears stared at his colleague. The eyes are said to be the mirrors of the soul. The old professor’s affection for Margaret was obvious.
Before speaking, the professor made a quick glance over his shoulder. And when he spoke, his voice was soft and low. “I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m also glad that we’re alone.”
Margaret nodded, took another sip.
Professor Sears sat back in his chair, drew in a deep breath, sighed. “You and I have known each other for a good many years. I’m a fine judge of horse flesh. I can tell, you’re someone I can trust to take appropriate action.”
“Given the size of the Electrical Engineering Department and the Computer Science Department and the Nuclear Engineering Department, and the requirement their freshmen and juniors take a number of perspective courses, my class, The History of Space Exploration is extremely popular.”
Margaret nodded, took another sip.
“What I’m going to tell you now is in the strictest confidence,” said the Professor. “If I’m unable to complete and publish my memoirs, after my passing, you may disclose what I’m about to tell you to our colleagues here.”
Margaret complained, “Oh, for goodness sake, don’t talk like that!”
Professor Sears smiled — but his eyes were cold, did not match the smile. “We must face the truth. My time is near over.”
The old professor took a long sip of his coffee. “Now listen carefully to my words. Commit what I say to memory.
“Not long ago, during my office hours, a student of mine came by. Like many freshmen, he’d been having problems with the sheer volume of his coursework, was looking for relief.
“Of course, I was unable to provide any relief. We fell into polite conversation. He then entrusted me with a confidence — a confidence that because of my course concerning the history of space exploration and my own enthusiasm for the subject — well, I hold that confidence in the highest regard.”
As Margaret took another sip of tea, she peered over the cup.
“Do you know anything about the Mariner space probes of the 1960s?” asked Professor Sears.
Margaret shook her head. Her eyes widened.
Professor Sears chuckled. “A bit before your time.”
“Anyway,” continued the professor, “back in 1967, one of the Mariners, Mariner 5 it was, it flew by Venus. The interesting thing is, the probe that flew by Venus wasn’t really Mariner 5. But it was named Mariner 5 to help cover up the findings of the real Mariner 5. According to my student, the real Mariner 5 successfully landed on Mars.”
“I’m listening,” replied Margaret. “This is becoming interesting.”
Professor Sears continued, “My student informed me that his paternal grandfather was a telecommunications technician at the time, was a contractor installing equipment in a telephone exchange.
“Said telephone exchange had an amplified monitor speaker connected to a leased line to some radio station. The leased line to the radio station was a news feed from the Association of Broadcasting Consolidators.
“A reporter for the Association was at NASA, watching the video transmissions coming in from the spacecraft, was providing a running commentary describing the images.
“According to my student’s granpa, the reporter became very excited, reported that he saw in the video what appeared to be a cactus. The news feed then cut off. From that point on, no one in the media ever broadcast or published so much as a word on that cactus.”
“How can that be?” asked Margaret.
Professor Sears snorted, then smirked. “There are forces about, dark forces. Repression, regression, ignorance, control, and more, much more — that’s what these dark forces want. And most of all, they want to possess our very souls. They will stop at nothing. And the fact that there exists life on other planets? Well, that fact must be suppressed, lest such knowledge subvert their self-image of human supremacy and divine origins. Their absurd opinion that the Earth is the very center of the universe may also be a factor.”
“Oh my,” said Margaret in a stage-whisper. “My oh my.”
Professor Sears leaned forward, patted Margaret on the knee. “Now someone else knows. I can have some peace.”
With a grunt, the old professor stood, walked toward the door. He stopped, turned awkwardly, said, “Goodbye, my dear.”
* * *
During her lunch break, Margaret rushed home, sat at the desk in her home office, picked up her phone’s receiver. The phone was from the late 20th century. It was clunky and black. But it had been Margaret’s father’s, and it worked fine
Margaret punched in some numbers. The ringback tone sounded twice.
“Pappy’s Pizza,” answered the called party. The local Pappy’s Pizza Parlor was less than a mile south.
Margaret had pulled an index card from beneath the desk’s blotter, carefully read off of the card: “I’d like a large — thin crust, sausage, mushroom, and olive. No wait! Make that a medium.”
There came a faint click, then came one sounding of a higher frequency ringback tone, another click.
“Will that be black olive?”
Margaret replied, “It’s Margaret three.”
Margaret held the receiver away from her ear as a series of multi-frequency tones squealed. The bi-directional scrambler system was then enabled.
Pappy’s Pizza was a national chain. Margaret wondered once again how many of Pappy’s locations served as fronts for intelligence gathering.
A robotic sounding female voice asked, “What is your access code?”
There came another faint click.
“Agent Reilly here. Whatcha got, Margaret?”
“I’ve got a code 28. Wait till you hear this one; it’s an interesting case. Got the name of one of the perps. You’ll have to track down any others.”
* * *
Kevin came into the bedroom. He was already dressed.
Margaret smiled at the sight of her husband. Despite his age, he cut quite a figure. He’d been a varsity defensive back during his college football years and still looked the part.
Kevin walked over to where Margaret was standing, gripped her upper arms, leaned in, kissed his wife.
After a time, Margaret broke away, turned, said, “Don’t get any ideas. We’ll be late. Zip me up.”
Kevin zipped the zipper, gave Margaret a gentle swat to her backside, then sat on the bed.
Margaret looked to the mirrored closet door. The black sheath dress fit her perfectly. She turned again, a graceful pirouette, looked over her shoulder to the mirror, liked what she saw.
Margaret went to her dresser, put on a pearl necklace, a hat, a pair of white gloves.
The hat was many decades out of style, but was perfect for a funeral. The hat was a black beret with a very open-weaved black veil.
Kevin stood. “Ready?”
Kevin shook his head. “Too bad about old Professor Sears. I kinda liked the guy.”
Margaret decided she didn’t need a purse, started for the door.
Kevin added, “Suicide by barbiturates. They found a baggy with some on his nightstand. I guess there are worse ways to go.”
Margaret said nothing in reply. She wished Kevin would shut up.
Kevin then said, “In a university town, I guess it’s easy enough to get drugs.”
Copyright © 2014 by C.E. Gee