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People Will Talk

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Title: A Little Man  

Author/pseudonym: Tinnean  

Fandom: People Will Talk  

Pairing: Rodney Elwell/m, Elwell/Lyman Brockwell, Noah Praetorius/ Dante Higgins (all implied)  

Rating: PG-13 for insinuation, mostly (sorry about that)  

Disclaimer: Not mine. They belong to Twentieth Century Fox and Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve, anyone?), who not only directed, but put the clever words in their mouths.  

Status: new/complete  

Date: 6/03  

Series/Sequel: no  

Summary: Jealousy rears its head in academia.  

Warnings: m/m, spoilers for the movie. Liberties again taken have been. (sorry) **g**  If you've seen the movie, you'll know that Deborah has become Dante, and Arthur Higgins,** her** father, has become Guinevere, **his** mother.  

Notes: The movie is set in 1951. People who were 50 looked **old**. Women at that time very seldom, if ever, wore trousers. // indicates thought. Shunderson's speech at the end is taken directly from the movie. Thanks, as always, to Gail for being such a fabulous beta.

I'd like to take a moment to pay homage to Hume Cronyn, who, sadly, passed away on Sunday, June 15, 2003. No one else could have portrayed Rodney Elwell with such condescending snarkiness.

This is for Page's birthday, 6/18. Happy birthday!  


A Little Man

Part 1


"Will I see you at the ice-breaker this evening, Rodney?"  

I glanced at the reflection in the mirror of the figure reclining on the rumpled bed,  then focused on my own reflection, fussing with my tie. "Possibly. If I haven't anything more pressing. Lyman's functions can be tedious."

I could see he was impressed by my casual disdain for the dean's cocktail party. Lyman Brockwell had once been a lover, which no one knew, but I'd moved on when I realized that he would never take proper advantage of the opportunities that were offered him.  

How could I have even dreamed he would attain the position of dean of this university? I frowned, almost missing Addison 's next words.  

"I understand Dr. Praetorius received an invitation."  

I stilled. "He's going to be there?" I asked casually.  

"Mmm. Rodney…"  

I tuned him out and concentrated on  Noah Praetorius.  

He had arrived a few weeks prior and had taken an apartment in an… ethnic… part of town. Someone really should have told him he needed to find a more suitable neighborhood in which to reside.  

The news had flashed through the campus that he would be doing a series of guest lectures. He also intended to open a clinic, which had been built on the outskirts of town. I wondered if he came from a wealthy family to have the money for that project.  

"I think perhaps I will attend." I made a show of checking the time. "Well, I must be off. I have a lecture, and I don't wish to be late."  

"When will we…" He was going to ask when we would meet again.  

"You know how discreet men in my… in our positions must be. I'll contact you. Good day, Addison . It was… pleasant." I closed the door before he could question me further. Our affair was over, although he might not be aware of that detail.  

Noah Praetorius was in town. I had bigger game to hunt.  

Later that evening, at the cocktail party, Addison persisted in trying to converse with me, but I kept my gaze cold and aloof. He'd never been exposed to that aspect of my personality, and little by little it shriveled him. Finally, he got the message, and with reproachful, puppy dog eyes, he left.  

I took that opportunity to approach Noah Praetorius. "Dr. Praetorius, I'm Professor Elwell. I chair the department of anatomy." I dragged my eyes up from the shallow cleft in his chin to his brown eyes.  

"Delighted to meet you, Professor."  

//Of course you are.// "And I you, Doctor." I gave him my most charming smile. "I've heard such fascinating things about you. About the way you practice, I mean." Let him wonder if that was what I really meant. I changed the subject, intending to confuse him further. "I'm doing some research on malignant germinoma."  

"I would be extremely interested to learn of the results."  

//Of course you would.// Better and better. I was certain that it would only be a matter of time before I had him under my influence. After all, I was older, more established, and I knew just the tone of voice that was guaranteed to intimidate someone without my vast experience.  

"You must let me introduce you around. I'm acquainted with the right sort of people." The people with influence and position and money.  "A word from me, and your clinic will be filled to overflowing." And so would be his coffers.  

Just then we were joined by another man who handed Noah a glass of punch, and the doctor's expression became warm. And affectionate. "This is Mr. Shunderson."  

I stiffened and peered over my eyeglasses at this possible impediment to my plans. A single glance, and I shrugged off my concern. Barrel-chested, white-haired, craggy-faced, his eyes rather vague, I assumed the man was nothing more than Noah's servant and dismissed him as unimportant. I turned back to the tall, dark, devilishly handsome practitioner of gynecology.  

The aftershave he was wearing was a draw I hadn't anticipated. My lips parted, and I was unable to prevent myself from leaning toward him. Perhaps I would allow him to join the select rank of my lovers, of whom there were very few. I had no doubt that he was a novice, if he was even aware of the fact that men could make love with men. I'd enjoy introducing him to the ways of it.  

Noah smiled. I licked my lips and returned his smile, and stepped closer to him, so close that he could feel the warmth radiating off my body.  

And then I looked into his eyes and realized that that smile was actually a condescension.  

"I make sick people well, Professor Elwell," he said coldly. "The size of their purse or how old their family is or who they know is immaterial to me. I am also extremely loyal to my friends. Mr. Shunderson is my friend. And you? You are not, nor is it likely you ever will be!"  

Praetorius was turning me down, rebuffing me? I was chairman of the prestigious anatomy department! He couldn't do that!  

"I see Dean Brockwell is free. He mentioned something about wanting to speak with me, to set up the lecture schedule. Good evening, Professor." He touched Shunderson's arm, and together they crossed the room to where the dean stood with a glass of punch in his hand. I was left standing alone with my mouth agape.  

My eyes narrowed in irritation as the two men began to converse, and Shunderson looked on. I pictured Praetorius under me, his cries, not of pleasure but pleas for pity as I plowed his virgin back passage unmercifully, using him for my own enjoyment.    

Abruptly, I realized the large man was observing me, and I was unnerved by his flat stare.  

Lyman's party was even more uninteresting than usual. It was time to leave.  

But as I left, I promised myself Noah Praetorius would one day  pay for slighting my offer of friendship.  


Time passed. I should have risen from head of the anatomy department to head of the entire school of health sciences, but instead, the accolades that were meant for me went to him. I grew bitter and even more firm in my resolve to bring Praetorius down.  

He was smooth, with a facility with words, a soothing tone, and devastating good looks. More of his patients recovered from illness or surgery than any other doctor affiliated with the university. And the administration was enthralled by him, enslaved by him. They… loved… him.  

No matter. I would uncover the truth about Praetorius, and I'd force the fools on the board of trustees to acknowledge that the façade he showed the world was a sham. I would show them that Doctor Noah Praetorius was a quack, a charlatan, a glamorous fraud, or my name wasn't Rodney Elwell.  


For months I'd been gathering information on him. I'd had a detective agency tracking down all the leads they could find, I could find.  

I could discover nothing about Praetorius' sexual proclivities. Women, whether students, patients or employees, adored him. Men treated him in the 'hail fellow, well-met' manner. And yet there wasn't a single shred of evidence that he took anyone to his bed. It was unnatural!  

I finally narrowed my inquiries to Mr. Shunderson. Who was he, this mysterious man who was never far from Praetorius' side?  

Known by students, faculty and staff as the Bat, the large, slow-moving, slow-witted man had some sort of hold on Noah Praetorius, and I fully intended to find out what it was. I was sure it was insalubrious, unsavory, and un-American.  

Police Sergeant Coonan was looking into his background. He'd found a picture taken in 1935 that bore some slight resemblance to Shunderson.  

I took the Canadian newspaper from him. "It's hard to tell if this is him." I briefly scanned the article about a man who had been brought up on charges of murdering his best friend twice, then handed it back to Coonan. The Canadian justice system held no interest to me.  

"I'll have Keyes see if he can get a current photo. Keyes, Professor Elwell. The photographer who does side jobs for me," he clarified.  

"Yes, yes. Just have it done as soon as possible."  

"Gonna cost." He stood there, his hand outstretched, waiting for me to pull some bills from my wallet. "It's a pleasure working for you, Professor." He folded the money without bothering to count it. "I'll be in touch." He sauntered out of my office. 

Coonan had his uses. He'd found someone who had been Praetorius' housekeeper fifteen years earlier, when he'd been living in Goose Creek, a hamlet down state.  

Sarah Piggett, a prune of a woman who looked as if she'd been fifty years old her entire life, was waiting in the corridor outside my office when I arrived in the morning. I hoped she would prove to be a fount of scandalous tidbits.  

I unlocked my door and gestured for her to enter before me.  

"Does the door get closed?" she asked suspiciously as she hovered in the doorway, her hands clutching her purse in front of her like a shield.  

"Of course." My business did not concern the entire student body.  

"Then you don't get your information."  

"Excuse me?"  

"You heard me. I don't go in if the door gets closed."  


"You're an adult. You know why."  

I stared at her. She was neither young nor attractive, and even if I hadn't preferred lovers who wore trousers, I would never have chosen her. "I think you're over-estimating both of us."  

Her expression became mulish, and for a moment I weighed my desire to have Praetorius removed from this university against the urge to throw this woman from my office bodily.  

"Very well," I sniffed as I sat down, opened a file, and picked up a fountain pen. She stepped away from the open door and took a seat, sitting gingerly on the edge. "Tell me about Noah Praetorius, and the time he spent in Goose Creek ."  

"What's in it for me? I ain't sayin' a word till I know what's in it for me."  

"Sergeant Coonan told you."  

"I want to hear it from you."  

I sighed. I was so put-upon. "You will have a job in the lab as a sort of housekeeper." I would have promised her the moon, if it would have gotten me the information that would see Praetorius not only cast out of the university, but also cost him his precious clinic.  

Her eyes gleamed with avarice. I imagined she was the sort who padded her employer's grocery bills and spit the difference with the grocer. I was familiar with her type, and I had no intention of allowing her to order laboratory supplies. She would find that out, all in good time. I swallowed a sour smile and waited for her to begin.  

"He was a 'doc'," she told me.  

"And what methods did he use?"  

She shrugged. "Some he'd give a pill or a powder. Some a tonic or a needle. An' some he'd jes' talk to."  

"I beg your pardon?" I waggled a finger in my ear, certain I could not have heard the woman correctly.  

"He'd talk about a body's miseries, an' talk about 'em, until finally he talked a body well!"  

"Hmm. A possible hypnotist." I made a note to look into it. I hadn't given hypnotism a thought before.  

She continued as if I hadn't spoken. "My old granny, she says she's a hunnert an' three."  

"No doubt."  

Sarah Piggett glowered at me. "She's a hunnert an' eight if she's a day. She took to her bed to die four times! Woulda been a mercy, let me tell ya! An' four times he talked her into gettin' up!" I stared at her impatiently, and she insisted again, "He jes' talked a body well!"  

I harrumphed. It was all nonsense. "What can you tell me about a man called Shunderson?"  

Her face became pasty. "Who did you say?" She looked terrified.  

"Shunderson. Shun-der-son!" I enunciated clearly.  

She rose and shut my office door, then turned to face me, trembling, and began to speak.  


Victory was within my grasp. I could taste it, and it was sweet as honey on my tongue.  

I took my information to Dean Brockwell. He read it over, then reluctantly agreed to call a meeting to investigate the charges.  

"I can't give this to Noah." He tapped the list on his palm. "He'll think I instigated this, that I have no faith in him."  

"I'll give it to him then." I took the pages from him, folded them precisely, and inserted them back into their envelope. I'd typed them myself, rather than have my secretary see them and bruit the contents all over the campus. The student body, immature twits that they were, held Praetorius in some regard. I wouldn't have been surprised if they thought he could walk on water. "I think this Wednesday would be a good evening to hold the meeting."  

Lyman looked tired. He really didn't have the temperament to run a university of this size. "Noah is out of town," he sighed. "He's speaking at a symposium in New York , I believe."  

I was aware of that. I didn't know why any reputable organization would want him to speak at their function, but I'd deliberately chosen a day when I knew he wasn't available, so I could name the date I really wanted. "Never let it be said that Rodney Elwell isn't accommodating. Friday the twenty-seventh, then."  

Lyman checked his calendar. "That's the night of the student concert!"  

Yes. I knew that. The meeting would delay the start of the concert considerably, and if it went the way I hoped, it would cancel it completely. Even someone with Noah Praetorius' unbounded confidence wouldn't have the fortitude to face the students and faculty after being exposed for what he was. "We'll find a way to keep it short, I'm sure," I murmured unctuously. "Good day, Lyman."  

By the time I was done with Noah Praetorius, his reputation as a doctor and an educator would be in shreds.  


It was early evening the day after Praetorius returned from New York . I strolled up the walk to his house and climbed the steps to the porch. Someone must have given him a hint, because he had finally purchased a suitable residence in the better part of town.  

Word around campus was that he had invited a 'friend' to live with him, and the extra room was coming in handy.  

On the porch were a couple of cushioned glider chairs and an old-fashioned swing for two suspended from the beams. I peered at the arrangement over my eyeglasses. It looked very… homey.  

I turned away and leaned a finger on the bell.  

The young man who answered the door was quite attractive. Of average height and with a lean build, he had sable brown hair and eyes the color of dark chocolate.  

I recalled seeing him at some of my lectures on dissection, although not recently. He usually took a seat  toward the rear of the classroom, and I'd first noticed him when he'd come in late a number of weeks ago. He'd edged past me, apologizing profusely in a soft, husky voice that had the faintest hint of an English accent. I'd always had a fondness for accents. I'd rather hoped he would remain after class, simply so I could have given him some private tutoring, but he'd closed his notebook and rushed out to his next class, not even pausing to speak with any of his fellow medical students.  

And now, here he was in Noah Praetorius' home. The sleeves of his tailored white shirt were rolled up, revealing nicely  muscled forearms that were dusted with hair. The first three buttons at his throat were undone, and there was a hint of curling hair that looked almost black. A silk tie, threaded through his collar, hung loosely around his neck.  

Surely he wasn't Praetorius' 'friend'!  

His eyes were bright and laughing as he opened the door, tossing a remark over his shoulder, "He isn't forty-two, he's really nine!" The laughter faded when he saw me.  

"Professor Elwell." His voice was toneless. "What a pleasant surprise."  

"Higgins, isn't  it?"  

"Yes, I'm Dante Higgins."  

"Unusual name."  

He shrugged.  

"I haven't seen you in class lately."  

He shrugged again, and I was tempted to ask him if the cat had got his tongue. I decided against it.  

"I must say I'm surprised to see you answering Noah Praetorius's front door."  

He seemed to hesitate for a moment. "Dr. Praetorius has been so kind as to give us a place to stay."  

"Us?" Not that I really cared, but I wanted to continue hearing that voice.  

"My mother and I."  

"Ah." So his mother was the 'friend'. I wondered how I could use that knowledge to my own benefit.  

I stepped forward. As I hoped, he took a step back, and I was in Praetorius' home. I removed my hat and overcoat and laid them on a chest by the front door.  

"Is the doctor at home?"  

"He's busy right now." He sounded almost protective. Interesting.  

It wasn't common knowledge that there was bad blood between Praetorius and me; we were always scrupulously polite when we met in public, but he could have spoken of it in his own home. If he had, and if I were as astute a judge of character as I knew I was, then Dante Higgins would side with Praetorius. It would only make sense. I was sure the young man wouldn't want anything to interfere with the comfortable arrangement he and his mother must have in this household.  

I was suddenly struck by a vagrant thought. Was young Mr. Higgins perhaps hoping Praetorius would marry his mother, and so become his father?  

"But he'll be here soon?" I glanced past the young man's shoulder to an octagonal table, which was elegantly set. There was a centerpiece of rosebuds, coral, tipped with blush pink. Sprays of baby's breath and lacy ferns framed the unusually colored flowers, whose sweet scent perfumed the air. There were five place settings, and crystal goblets holding water were at each one. "You're having a dinner party."  

"Just a small one, as you can see. It's Noah's birthday."  

Even more interesting.  

Part 2


"Beep, beep, beep," someone suddenly sang out from above stairs, and I recognized the light tenor of Professor Lionel Barker, and I frowned. The nuclear physicist had been invited? I hunched a shoulder. He'd published a number of papers and was gaining quite a reputation in his field. I, personally, had no use for him. He'd Americanized his name. He was a … foreigner.  

I thought I also heard the sound of electric trains. I met Dante Higgins' eyes and raised an eyebrow.  

"Dr. Praetorius is in conference with Professor Barker," the young man said defiantly.  

"Of course."  

Within seconds there was what sounded like a massive collision, and then voices raised in rancor. "Professor Lionel Barker!"  

"What a bloody mess!"  

"This is your fault! Your signal was 'beep, beep!'"  

"It was not! You, as dispatcher, are solely responsible! In a disaster of this magnitude, you have no recourse but to resign or blow your brains out!"  

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please!" A woman's voice, filled with chiding amusement.  

"You're at fault too, Guinevere! Your signal was 'beep, beep, beep.' Get Dante! He needs to see the kind of destruction and mayhem his mother is capable of!"  

Feminine laughter floated down the stairs, and Dante's face was suffused with happiness. I wanted to throw him to the floor and bury myself inside him. I quickly concealed my desire.  

A pair of stunningly beautiful legs encased in sheer hose came into view. "Dante, Noah thinks I'm a menace to railroading!"  

"Aren't you, Mother?" he teased fondly. He met my eyes, and his expression lost all animation. "We have a visitor."  

"Oh!" The woman continued to descend at a languid rate, as if aware of the impact she had on her audience. She approached me, her hand held out. "Hello. I'm Guinevere Higgins." She appeared a little breathless.  

"This is Professor Elwell, Mother."  

The merriment in her face dimmed, and she dropped her hand. "How do you do, Professor? I think I'll see how dinner is progressing. Excuse me, please." Her pace was still slow as she left the room.  

"Did you have a reason for coming here, Professor?" The young man had taken out a box of hard candies and was filling an ornate bowl. I had heard that Praetorius was trying to give up smoking, using the candy as a substitute for oral cravings.  

"May I have a glass of water?"  

Dante nodded reluctantly. "Help yourself."  

I went to the table and picked up a glass that had to be Praetorius'; it was at the head of the table.  

The glass was frosted, and when I took a cautious sip, I found the water was so chilled it hurt the back of my throat. I put the glass down and touched the tip of my tongue to a stray drop that clung to my upper lip. I had rather hoped that his eyes would be on my mouth, and I was disappointed to find they weren't.  

"I have something to give Dr. Praetorius." I took out the fat envelope, and he looked concerned.  

"What is it?" He stood there uncertainly, worrying his lush lower lip, and I found myself staring at his mouth.  

I cleared my throat. "These are the list of charges the administration wishes Dr. Praetorius to disprove before a faculty committee."  

"I'll take it." He extended his hand, but I held it out of his reach, and he moved closer.  

"I prefer to give it to Dr. Praetorius, myself." I masked my glee behind dutiful earnestness. I had him within inches of my grasp, and I was about to touch him, when Shunderson entered the room.  

"Your mother wished me to tell you that dinner is almost ready, Mr. Higgins." Shunderson's pale gaze was warm as he observed the young man.  Then he turned it on me, and I struggled to prevent a shudder of distaste. He wasn't normal. How could Praetorius bear to have the man around him?  

My distraction allowed Dante Higgins to snatch the envelope from my fingers, and he stepped back triumphantly, holding it behind his back. "Professor Elwell is just leaving, Mr. Shunderson. Would you show him the door?"  

The Bat took my arm and began ushering me out. He wasn't smart enough to know about the nerve in the elbow, or the amount of pressure necessary to bring a man to his knees, but somehow, he was pressing on it, and I felt lightheaded, as if I were about to faint. I yanked my arm free.  

"You'll see that Doctor Praetorius gets that envelope? It would be a shame if the contents were lost." I picked up my overcoat and draped it over my numb arm, barely catching it before it slid to the floor. It was a struggle to keep my emotions concealed, but I succeeded. "It is vital that he attend the open discussion that Dean Brockwell will be having."  

"Vital, Professor Elwell? Isn't that a little melodramatic?"  

"Only if he wishes to continue to practice medicine." It was my turn to be triumphant, but I was speaking to the closed door. I straightened my suit jacket and was about to walk away when I realized I'd left my hat behind. I paused, considering  my options.  

I could go back and get my hat now, while the house was filled with people.  

Or… I dug a finger into my ear.  

Dante was living with his very beautiful mother and his mother's… friend, who, if they weren't having an affair, would most likely want to be having  one. I was certain a man of Praetorius' caliber would not have an affair with the mother while the son was under his roof. He was too… noble for that.  

Dante appeared to love his mother and would no doubt do whatever was necessary to ensure her happiness, even if that  meant moving out.  

I would return another time, I decided, when I was sure Dante was alone.  

There were ways to persuade impressionable young men that it would be only kind to those they cared about to alter their place of domicile.  

As for Mrs. Higgins and Dr. Praetorius, well, they were an unmarried couple, living under the same roof. Rumors did have a way of cropping up and spreading. Tailored a bit to leave out the fact that Dante and Shunderson were also living under that roof…  

I put my overcoat on and began strolling down the avenue.  

Rumors were only nasty depending on your point of view.  


I dressed with care. I hadn't been able to return to Noah Praetorius' home since I'd left the letter detailing the accusations I intended to lodge against the doctor, but that didn't matter. Once this night was over, Praetorius' reputation would be in tatters. The entire university would see him revealed for the fraud he was.  

Youth was so easily disillusioned, I mused. I had no doubt that once Dante Higgins saw Praetorius in his true light, I'd have no problem at all getting the young man away from that household.  

'Talking a body well,' indeed! I put a little dab of Brylcreem in my hair, humming under my breath, and washed my hands.  

Carefully I knotted my tie. I slid my arms into the sleeves of my suit jacket and made sure it hung neatly, then took a spare handkerchief and polished the lenses of my glasses. A touch to my breast pocket assured me of the handkerchief that was nestled in it.  

I smiled at my reflection in the mirror and went out into the other room, where I gathered up my overcoat and my briefcase.  

I was the first to arrive at the conference room. I hung my coat on the back of a chair, unbuttoned my suit jacket, and took a seat at the center of the oval table. Two of my associates joined me shortly and sat to my left.  

"You're looking well, Professor Elwell," the younger of the two murmured, a smirk twisting his lips. I acknowledged his statement with a prim smile. If it wasn't for young Higgins, I would have been tempted to become better acquainted with Professor Holmes.  

"We're going to finally force these fools to see Noah Praetorius for what he really is," the other chimed in. I knew he'd had a run in with Praetorius himself over the treatment of a female student who had gotten herself pregnant. Dr. Flowers had been all for having her expelled on the grounds of moral turpitude, while Praetorius had taken the radical stance that if she were expelled, so, too, should be the young man who impregnated her.  

"We must not be swayed by our personal inclinations, gentlemen. These men are our colleagues, and we must afford them a measure of courtesy."  

"Of course, of course. Forgive me, Professor."  

I nodded to him graciously.  

Dean Brockwell entered the room. "Professor Elwell. Professor Holmes. Dr. Flowers. I do hope we can complete this informal hearing quickly. The student concert is being delayed, and I have no doubt you chose tonight to hold this… this witchhunt particularly for that reason."  

"Dean Brockwell, I must protest!" I made a production of looking into my briefcase, hiding my smile. I remembered other occasions, during the time we were lovers, when Lyman had sounded just as huffy. 'You're taking too long, Rodney! Fuck me now!'  

His eyes narrowed. "We've been friends a long time, Rodney; don't presume on that friendship!" I gave a start. It was as if he were reading my mind. "I will do what is best for this university!"  

"Of course, Lyman." I concealed my irritation with him. I'd gotten very good at that over the years. I was the head of the department of anatomy, but he was the head of the university. Before I could say anything further, Dr. Stuart, a member of the board of trustees, came into the room, followed closely by Lionel Barker. They seated themselves on Dean Brockwell's left.  

I was glancing impatiently at my wristwatch, wondering if Praetorius would even bother to show up, or if he had turned tail and run.  

Just as I congratulated myself that the day was mine, that I was going to win, Noah walked in.  

And somehow, I lost…  

All my carefully garnered arguments, rebutted one by one.  

The fact that he'd been a butcher in Goose Creek  

"An honorable trade."  

But the townspeople were convinced he was a miracle worker.  

"I made sick people well. I was available to anyone who wanted to see me."  

He was a quack!  

"I am not a quack! Despite what you persist in stating, Professor Elwell, a quack is an unqualified person who practices medicine. I was fully qualified. I simply chose not to display my diploma."  

No matter how hard I pushed, Praetorius pushed back harder.  

Holmes and Flowers edged their chairs further and further away, until finally I was alone in the center of the table, and I seized on the one ace in the hole that would bring down Praetorius' house of cards.  

"What can you tell us of Shunderson?"  

"Mr. Shunderson. He is my friend. He answers to me."  

"He's a murderer!"  

That got everyone's attention, and Holmes and Flowers began edging their chairs back toward me. I curled my lip at them.  

"Dr. Praetorius, perhaps you would like to give a pertinent account of your relationship with Mr. Shunderson?" Lyman suggested.  


"N--no?" Lyman stuttered. I couldn't remember ever seeing the dean so taken aback.  

"It is not  my story to tell, and it has no bearing on this trial."  

"I assure you, Noah, this is not a trial!" Lyman could be such a toady at times.  

Praetorius unwrapped a piece of candy and popped it in his mouth. His lips puckered, and for the briefest moment I regretted that we were enemies. "Sour apple," he murmured. His mouth tightened, and he demanded, "What would you call this trial, if not a trail?"  

Before the dean could respond to that, there was a tap on the door. It opened, and Shunderson walked in.  

Praetorius looked upset. "What are you doing here?"  

"I was listening outside the door," he told Praetorius apologetically, and Noah's face softened. Out of sight under the table, my hand clenched into a fist.  

Shunderson turned to the dean. "He will not tell you my story. May I?"  

I felt my blood pressure rising. "I protest this… this no doubt prearranged eavesdropping!" I spat.  

"Elwell, you are the most annoying pip-squeak I have ever known!" Barker snapped at me.  

I bristled, but Dean Brockwell spoke over my protests. "Please, Mr. Shunderson." He glared at me. "Anything that will get this inquisition ended!" I recoiled in shock. Lyman had never used that tone of voice to me. Ever.  

Shunderson went to stand near Praetorius. "Well, now…" He paused, consternation on his face. "Where should I begin?"  

Praetorius smiled at the slow-witted dunce. "Begin at the beginning."  

The Bat's smile was sickeningly sweet. He opened his mouth, paused, and turned to Praetorius. "The first time I was condemned to death?"  

Praetorius nodded.  

Shunderson glanced around the room, then settled on Lyman and began to tell his story. "The first time I was condemned to death was in 1917, for the murder of my best friend, in Canada ."  

I listened impatiently as Shunderson recounted the tiresome, and no doubt inflated, events of thirty-four years before.  

"As it happened, I had a best friend and a sweetheart. One day my best friend suggested the three of us go mountain climbing together. My sweetheart couldn't climb very well and was afraid she would hold us back, so she said she would stay below at the chalet. My friend and I were about halfway up the mountain when we began to argue, as friends do, and he hit me with a rock. Me being bigger, I took the rock away from him and  knocked him down. He jumped up and ran away. When I went back down to the chalet, my sweetheart started screaming and calling me a murderer because I was all covered in blood. It was my blood," he said parenthetically.  

Praetorius murmured something encouraging. I couldn't hear it from where I sat. Not that I needed to be privy to a conversation between a fraud and an idiot.  

The Bat smiled forlornly. "That was how I learned my best friend and my sweetheart were sweethearts."  

"Betrayed by both your best friend and your sweetheart. Which caused the most pain?" Professor Barker wondered. Praetorius' expression was sad, an act I was sure, and he slid a piece of candy down the table to Barker.  

"Please continue, Mr. Shunderson."  

"Well," he took a few steps away from Praetorius and folded his hands at his waist, "I was tried for the murder of my friend and found guilty, but because the body was never found, my sentence was commuted from death by hanging to fifteen years at hard labor. At the end of that time, I was released."  

"Was the body of your friend ever found?"  

"Oh, yes, I found it myself." There were mumbles of consternation, but Shunderson went on as if he hadn't been interrupted. "He was eating a bowl of soup in a Toronto restaurant. I believe it was pea soup."  

As if that mattered. My lips tightened. "Must we continue to be subjected to this balderdash?"  

"Be quiet, Rodney. I want to hear this! Please go on, Mr. Shunderson."  

I glared at Lyman, but he ignored me, apparently fascinated by that fairy tale.  

"I asked him, very nicely, why he never came forward to admit he was alive. His answer was unsatisfactory, and I hit him in the face with his soup. And then I picked up a chair, and hit him with that as well. Someone called the police, and when the policeman arrived, I took his club away from him and hit my friend with that also."  

"Oh, my!"  

"I was arrested. I tried to explain to the policeman that since I'd already served a sentence for killing my friend, this really didn't count. He said that wasn't any excuse, and that I was in serious trouble. I think I was in serious trouble because I'd used the policeman's club."  

"Do you think if you'd killed him with the chair or the soup you wouldn't have been arrested?" Professor Barker seemed to feel that was a reasonable question.  

"Don't encourage him, Barker!" I snarled at him. I thought for a moment he was going to stick his tongue out at me.  

"But… that's a miscarriage of justice!" Lyman was horrified.  

I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. The Bat was here, obviously alive. Either it had been declared a mistrial or he'd had a smart lawyer who got him off on double jeopardy.  

"They commuted your sentence, then." He shook his head. "Granted you clemency? You escaped?"  

"Oh, no. I was sentenced to be hanged, and I was. It was a rainy morning," he mused and walked back to Praetorius. "February the twenty-ninth. We had to wait for an official's glasses to be fetched. Once they were brought to him, he read a paper, the hangman put the noose around my neck, a priest said some prayers. I closed my eyes and thought of my… my mother, and the trapdoor dropped out from under me. That was the last I knew until I felt a finger covered in a rubber glove in my mouth. I bit down, and someone yelled, and that was how I met Dr. Praetorius."  

"You must have been furious, Noah," Barker chuckled, and Praetorius slid him another candy, smiling.  

"This is utter rubbish!" I snorted. "How much longer must we be subjected to this nonsense?"  

"Rodney! Be quiet!" The dean scowled at me, and I subsided. "Mr. Shunderson?"  

"I'll take it from here," Praetorius interjected, and he rose to his feet to stand beside the large, stupid man. "I had just finished medical school, and I was keeping company at the time with the hangman's… daughter, a sweet girl. Her father was very sympathetic to my desire to have a cadaver of my own. Since he knew that no one would claim Mr. Shunderson's body, because surely no one has ever been so alone as poor Mr. Shunderson…"  

"Oh, please! Everyone is alone at some point or other!" I  muttered under my breath. I was tempted to show him the world's smallest violin. That would have been too childish, so I simply gave a gentlemanly snort.  

No one was paying any attention to my objections. Holmes and Flowers were once again at the far end of the table, and I sneered at them. They wouldn't be in my department for very much longer!  

Meanwhile, Praetorius was still speaking. "The hangman sent me Mr. Shunderson's body immediately after the hanging, and I discovered he was still alive. He told me his story, and we placed some pig iron in the coffin and had it buried in a charity graveyard. He's been with me ever since." He put his arm around Shunderson's shoulders and met each set of eyes around the table, last of all, mine. "So if it seems that he's a little confused, or a little dull-witted, I overlook it because I have always known the reason for it."  

There was silence. And then Dr. Stuart cleared his throat, and Lionel Barker pulled out a dishtowel of a handkerchief and blew his nose.  

"Gentlemen…" Lyman was interrupted by another tap on the door, and this time Dante Higgins entered. He was looking tense and pale.  

"I'm sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but the natives are getting restless." He forced a smile.  

"Dante! You shouldn't be here." Praetorius crossed the room to join the younger man.  

"Please, Dean Brockwell. Hasn't the concert been delayed long enough? After all, if you find against Noah, he may need to become a conductor to earn a living. You didn't find against him, did you?"  

"No, young man."  

Dante blew out a sigh of relief, and Praetorius smiled down at him. I caught my breath. How could I have missed that Praetorius was interested in him, not his mother?  

Of course, I hastened to assure myself, I'd never seen the two of them together. It was understandable, and not my fault.  

"Ah, Professor Elwell. You left your hat the last time you paid us a visit. I brought it along tonight in hopes I could return it. Here you are." Dante approached me, my hat extended toward me.  

"Thank you," I gritted out. "You're too kind." I dropped it on the table.  

His lips twitched in a grin, and he returned to Praetorius. A silent message seemed to pass between them, and the pair glanced expectantly at Dean Brockwell.  

"Go along, Noah. The concert has been held up too long. I suggest we put this whole miserable experience behind us."  

I watched as Praetorius and the young man left the room.  

"Do you know what your problem is, Elwell?" I felt sure Barker would tell me. "You never had a cadaver of your own, much less one that bit your finger." He curled his lip and left the room. The other men hurried after him, my associates scurrying away like rats from a sinking ship.  

"May I conclude that this is over, Rodney?" Lyman took a step toward me, then stopped, his expression sad.  

I could feel my face heat with humiliation. I nodded stiffly. He hesitated a moment more, then turned away, and I was left alone in the room, or so I thought. I gathered up my papers.  

"Professor Elwell." It was the hulking, stupid Shunderson. I started to cringe away from him, afraid to be alone in the same room with him. I forced myself to remain still. "You're a little man," he told me. "It's not that you're short. You're… little, in the mind and in the heart. Tonight, you tried to make a man little whose boots you couldn't touch if you stood on tiptoe on top of the highest mountain in the world. And as it turned out… you're even littler than you were before." And then he was gone, and I was alone in that room.  

I continued to stuff my notes into my briefcase. My hat lay on the table, and I glowered at it before shoving it into the briefcase as well. I snapped the clasp shut, put on my overcoat, and stalked out of the room, leaving the light for someone else to turn off.  

My path home would take me past the building where the concert was being held; there was no way to avoid it. The triumphant strains of Gaudeamus, Igitur rang through the brisk night air. I paused and put my hand on the door to enter, then stopped. There was nothing in there for me. Not esteem, not respect, not...  

I raised the collar of my overcoat, hoping it would keep the wind out, turned away from the door, and left the campus. 



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