Cruel Ambition

The chairperson of the humanities division at Winston University has disappeared, and a replacement must be appointed. Professor Michael Tremaine wants the job, and he’s the top candidate, but he doesn’t realize until it’s too late that he’s in competition with a colleague who is deadly serious.

Her body had never been found, but that detail wouldn’t prevent Michael from getting what he deserved. He was on pins and needles as he listened to Dean Joyner drone on and on about the university’s tenure policy. Things had been coming together quite nicely for him over the past few months, and today would mark a significant turning point in his career. His only regret was that Ingrid wasn’t there to see it, even though it was her absence that made his ascension possible. He had been competitive with her for years, and that attitude remained in spite of it now being a one-sided competition. He looked around at the other twenty-two people in the room –- most of whom he didn’t like –- and took great satisfaction in the knowledge that they were not going to be happy with what they were about to hear.

The Dean paused for dramatic effect and then finally made the announcement that Michael had been waiting for, “It has become apparent that Professor Olson will not be returning; therefore, I have decided to appoint Professor Michael Tremaine as interim chair of the humanities division.”

Winston University was a top-ranked institution of higher learning in southeastern Pennsylvania, so this promotion was no small feat for an African American professor of linguistics whose major area of study was North American slave narratives. Michael was keenly aware of it being an interim appointment and that other candidates would be interviewed, but he was confident that none of his colleagues could match his record of published works. More importantly, he had become one of the go-to political pundits for a national cable news channel, which provided positive exposure for the university every time he appeared on screen and also caused a spike in the sale of his books, resulting in increased profits for the university press.

Once the meeting adjourned, the department heads approached him and offered their lukewarm congratulations. He immediately took on his new role as leader and informed them that they would soon receive memos regarding the changes he would be making within the division. He smiled magnanimously and enjoyed their obvious discomfort with his new power.

He was on his way out the door when he felt someone touch his arm. He turned and was surprised to find himself face to face with the lovely Greta Walters, English professor. She smiled at him provocatively and said, “I can’t believe we’ve never had lunch.” She leaned against the door jam, blocking his way, and said, “I plan on teaching The Confessions of Nat Turner next semester, and I’d love to get your perspective on it. Are you free now?”

This was an unexpected development. Greta had never said more than two words to him. She was known to be into jocks and hunks, and had last been involved with an assistant basketball coach who had gone on to the NBA without her. Michael cut a fine figure in a bespoke suit, but he was a skinny guy with an average face, not Greta’s type by a long shot. He marveled at how quickly power was proving to be an aphrodisiac, and he looked forward to the new possibilities arising from it. He said, “I’d be delighted to share my thoughts on it with you, but I need to go to my office first and send an email.”

“I’ll keep you company.”

Before he could object, she was already walking down the hallway towards his office. She continued talking, but he wasn’t listening because he was focused on how good she looked from the rear. She had an hourglass figure, and, as was her custom, she wore a business suit that hugged her in all the right places. He lagged behind until they arrived at his office, whereupon he motioned to the couch and said, “Make yourself comfortable. I won’t be long.” He sat down at his desk and typed his email.

Greta took the opportunity to look around and try to learn more about him. The walls were adorned with beautiful framed prints of the works of Monet and Van Gogh, but she thought they were there primarily to impress others rather than reflect his own artistic tastes. It seemed like he was trying too hard to be the archetype of a liberal arts professor. He didn’t have any personal photographs on display. No pictures of a wife or girlfriend. No kids. Not even a dog. The furniture and all other items looked like standard university issue. The only thing that provided any insight into Michael was his clothing. He was wearing a custom-made suit of beautiful charcoal gray wool, and she could see that his crisp white shirt was professionally laundered. His silk necktie was knotted in a perfect half-Windsor, and his brogues were polished to perfection. She decided the direct approach was the best way to learn anything about him. She said, “Michael, why haven’t you ever asked me out?” She waited a full minute for him to answer, but he said nothing. She asked him again, “Why haven’t you asked me out?”

“I heard you the first time.” He stopped typing and looked up at her, a woman who was accustomed to being the center of attention. He said, “I never thought I had a chance because you inhabit some rarefied air. Frankly, I’m surprised that you’ve deigned to talk to a mere mortal such as me.”

Greta recognized the subtle put-down for what it was. His words brought back the sting of humiliation she felt when her fiancé broke off their engagement the minute he was hired by a top NBA team on the west coast. She smiled and said, “For a man with a reputation for being aloof, you’re certainly up on the latest gossip.”

They hadn’t even left the office, and things were already going sideways. He said, “I didn’t mean to offend you.” But the damage had been done, and his words fell on deaf ears.

Her attitude had turned cold. She said, “We should do this some other time after you’ve settled into the job a bit.” She was gone before he could respond.

He felt a twinge of guilt for insulting her, but was relieved that he wouldn’t have to make small talk with a woman who was only interested in him because of his elevated stature in academia. He was far more concerned with writing a memo about the new publishing requirements for the humanities faculty. He commenced to preparing an outline because he wanted to make sure he projected the image of a benevolent but absolute ruler, and to do that he needed to choose his words carefully so as not to say anything that might be used against him in the minefield of university politics.

It was eight o’clock that evening by the time he finished. He packed some papers in his briefcase and left his office. As he walked down the darkened corridor he could see that the lights were still on in Greta’s office. The door was cracked open, so he knocked softly and stepped inside. Greta was seated at her desk and looked up at him with a blank expression on her face. He said, “I get nervous when I’m near a beautiful woman, and sometimes I say the wrong thing. So, about what happened in my office today… mea culpa.” Her expression remained unchanged as she fixed her eyes upon him. There was something unsettling about her, and he felt ill at ease as they silently appraised one another. He wondered if he had been too hasty in his initial assessment of her as being shallow. Were there hidden depths to be plumbed?

She said, “Apology accepted.” She smiled. “I’ve been known to be overly sensitive. I’ll have to work on that.”

Michael started backing up towards the door. “I’ll let you get on with your work.”

“Wait, please.” She gathered up her things. “I’m ready to go. Do you mind walking me to my car?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

The night air was chilly, so she huddled in close to him as they walked. He breathed in her fresh scent and thought that she must taste like lilacs. She wasn’t in Ingrid’s league intellectually, of course, but what she lacked in cerebral heft she made up for in style and charm. Having her at his side could work to his advantage in the celebrity circles that he had recently gained entry to because of his status as a television political pundit. He didn’t want to appear too eager and rush things, but he was optimistic that they would make a good team. He’d let his feelings be known to her when the time was right.

Greta stopped suddenly and said, “I know a place that makes great martinis.” She smiled and put her arm through his.

He knew he had to tread carefully. One misstep could ruin everything. “I better not. It’s a school night.”

She tilted her head and stared as if she were seeing him for the first time. She smiled and said, “Just one drink to celebrate your new job.”

His eyes moistened as he realized that she was the first person to say that his promotion was worth celebrating. He looked at the ground to hide his sudden feeling of sentimentality and said, “Well, maybe just one.”

He arrived at his office that morning an hour earlier than usual, anxious to get a head-start on the day. He felt energized from the night before with Greta. They had decided to have a late supper to soak up the stiff martinis each of them drank. They talked until the tavern closed, and there was a moment when their eyes met that Michael instinctively knew she wouldn’t object to going home with him. But he didn’t let things go that far, and they had said a friendly goodbye to each other in the parking lot.

He plunged into a pile of requisitions from the faculty and was surprised at how reasonable they were as he approved one after another, which he thought to be a sign of good things to come. He had moved on to grading his students’ research papers when he received a phone call from the Dean’s assistant, who asked him to report to the Dean’s office immediately.

He had a sense of foreboding as he made his way to meet with Dean Joyner. His mind raced through every conceivable reason that Joyner would want to see him, and he couldn’t come up with anything. He prided himself on always being two steps ahead of everyone else and didn’t like being in the dark about what was coming next. He was gripped with a sudden impulse to run and not look back, but he forced himself to walk into the lion’s den.

The dean was seated at his desk and motioned for Michael to take a seat across from him. The polished walnut desktop was bare except for a small antique clock, a silver letter opener with a porcelain handle in a silver tray, and a silver framed photograph of Joyner’s wife, son and a daughter. Joyner sat motionless, and his face was impassive. He didn’t waste time with any social niceties. He said, “A formal charge has been made against you by Professor Greta Walters.”

Michael was caught off guard. He didn’t move a muscle as he listened intently.

Joyner pulled a document out of his desk drawer and read from it. “In her written statement, she alleges that you exposed yourself to her in your office yesterday afternoon. She has provided a graphic description of your, ahem, member.” He wrinkled his nose as if a foul smell had entered the room as he read the statement aloud, “There is a dark brown, pear-shaped birthmark on the shaft just below the head of the penis.”

Michael was filled with rage. He didn’t have such a birthmark. Greta had never seen his penis, but she had provided enough detail to make her claim seem credible. It took all of his will power to remain calm in the face of a false accusation buttressed by historical racial stereotypes. He had no way to defend himself other than to suffer humiliation in front of his employer. Greta wasn’t as dumb as he had thought. In spite of his anger, he felt a grudging respect for how she had put him in a no-win situation. He could easily refute her allegation and put the entire matter to rest by unzipping his pants and showing the dean that she had lied. By doing so he would exonerate himself, but he would also lose his dignity and self-respect, and that was too high of a price to pay. He said, “I’ve been a distinguished member of this faculty for ten years. I’m offended that you could entertain the possibility of me doing such a repugnant act. I did not expose myself to Greta Walters.”

Dean Joyner said, “Unfortunately, it’s your word against hers.” He waited a few seconds for Michael to respond, but Michael remained silent. Joyner said, “My concern is not only for the university’s legal liability but also our reputation with regard to the treatment of female faculty. I say all this with the disappearance of Professor Olson weighing heavily on my mind. We simply cannot afford more negative publicity or even the hint of a scandal.” He paused for dramatic effect, and said, “In light of these circumstances, accommodations must be made. Effective the first of next month, Professor Greta Walters will be the new chair of the humanities division, and there will be no further action taken against you. Consider the matter closed.” The tension hung thick in the air as Michael stood up and walked out.

His anger had not dissipated by the time he got back to his office. This false accusation was an all too convenient excuse to take him out of the running for what should have been a sure thing, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Greta had outmaneuvered him. He decided he was done for the day and left the building without saying a word to anyone.

Once he was inside his car, he pondered the events that led up to this great wrong being perpetrated against him. He replayed every word of conversation along with every nonverbal signal. How could he have not seen it coming? Vanity. She had played the part of the doe-eyed admirer to perfection. He slapped his forehead in reproach for this weakness that had caused him to lose what he had worked so hard to achieve. There was nothing to be done about the job. He had to press forward with his life, but he would settle things with Greta first.

It was a Wednesday evening, and the tavern was crowded with the usual after-work crowd of commuters who stopped in after getting off the train from Philadelphia. Michael was seated in a booth in the back where he had a view of the front door and the bar. He was dressed in jeans, a tee shirt and a leather jacket with a baseball cap pulled down low on his forehead. He was nursing a scotch and soda when Greta waked in. Heads turned as she passed by other patrons in a stylish burgundy suit that had a straight skirt with a back split that provided a very flattering view of her shapely legs. She sauntered to the bar and took her time as she carefully seated herself on the barstool. Before the bartender had a chance to ask for her drink order, a man in an expensive business suit sidled up next to her. Michael watched her all evening as she flirted with various men and consumed a total of three martinis. By the time she left the bar at a few minutes after eleven o’clock, he was surprised that she could walk a straight line. He felt confident that she wouldn’t notice him following her, but he was careful to stay in the shadows.

She was humming a happy tune when she stopped in front of a fenced-in garden cottage. She opened the privacy gate, and he rushed in behind her, covering her face with a chloroform-soaked cloth. She crumpled to the ground, and he removed her keys from her hand and unlocked the front door. He picked her up and carried her inside, walking through the house to the door in the kitchen that opened into the garage. He placed her in the trunk of her BMW very carefully, and then he got behind the wheel. He pressed the button on the remote located in the visor and opened the garage door.

It took forty minutes for him to drive to the mansion situated at the county line. The Olson family was one of the original families to settle the area, and they had amassed a real estate empire large enough to secure the family’s wealth for generations. Ingrid had opted out of the real estate business and chosen the halls of academia where she had become an internationally recognized expert on the works of William Shakespeare and chair of the humanities division at Winston University. It was a shock to everyone when she disappeared off the face of the earth. Her parents had been dead for years, and she was an only child who never married or had children. The last time she had been seen was when she administered final exams to her students before the winter break. She was reported missing by Dean Joyner after she didn’t show up for classes when they resumed in January. As the stately house came into view, he thought about the many enjoyable weekends he had spent there with Ingrid and how they would argue about everything from Dickens to Vonnegut in between bouts of lovemaking. Surprising himself, he felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of never seeing her again.

He turned the car into the driveway and drove a quarter of a mile to reach the house itself and continue past it on a dirt road deep into the woods behind. He parked the car in a small clearing in the midst of a circle of trees. He got out and stood still as his eyes adjusted to the dark. He pulled a flashlight out of his jacket pocket and searched all around him. Once he was satisfied that he was alone, he walked over to the wooden double door of an old ice house that had been built into the hillside. He pulled the door open and pointed the flashlight inside, searching every nook and cranny to make sure it was empty. He went back to the car and opened the trunk. He stared at Greta’s unconscious body and contemplated just dumping her in the woods because he had seen on the news that Pennsylvania was experiencing a record bear population that year. He dismissed that idea, however, as he figured that a bitch like Greta would fight back and probably survive a bear attack. He lifted her out of the trunk and carried her inside the ice house where he laid her down on the wooden floor. He returned to the car and removed a long padlock chain from the trunk along with her purse. He threw the purse inside, and it landed on top of her. He closed the double doors, looped the chain through the handles, and locked it shut.

He went to work as usual the next day and delivered a lecture to over a hundred undergraduates. After class, he met with students in his office for two hours and then ventured into the faculty lounge to check on whether Greta’s absence had been noticed. He made his way to the coffee station where he was joined by Professor Clay McGruder, the youngest member of the humanities faculty. McGruder had the kind of good looks and easy charm that made him instantly popular with most people he met. McGruder asked softly, “Any word on Greta Walters?”

Normally, Michael would be annoyed by McGruder’s presumed familiarity, but it now served his purpose. He said, “I don’t what you’re talking about.”

“Have you been under a rock or something? She didn’t show up for her classes today, and nobody’s heard from her.” McGruder looked around and lowered his voice, “It’s just like what happened with Ingrid Olson.”

“Isn’t it a bit early for speculation?”

“Maybe so, but the dean isn’t taking any chances this time. The police are in his office taking a report as we speak.”

Michael hadn’t expected the police to be called this soon, so he had to move fast. He looked at his watch and said, “You’ll have to excuse me, Clay. I’ve got an appointment.” He hurried out of the lounge and left the building to go straight to his car in the parking lot. He drove downtown to a commercial parking garage and went to the top level where he had parked Greta’s car. He got out of his Lexus and into her BMW. He knew he was taking a chance, but he had no choice other than to drive to Greta’s house in broad daylight. As he drove her car into her garage, he hoped that none of her neighbors would notice anything. He wanted to make it look as though she had left her home voluntarily, that she had decided to leave her life and start new somewhere else.

Once inside the house, he was all business as he went to her bedroom and gathered the appropriate seasonal clothes and packed them into a large suitcase. He left a medium size suitcase next to her bed as a clue. He then went to the bathroom and loaded her cosmetics into an overnight bag. He moved on to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to remove all the perishables and threw them in a garbage bag. When he was finished with that, he went into the garage and placed the garbage bag into the trunk. He went back into the bedroom to retrieve the suitcase and overnight bag. He was satisfied that he had taken care of everything and returned to the garage where he put the luggage into the trunk and got into the car for the last time. He pressed the remote, and as the garage door rolled up, his heart sank. Two uniformed police officers were standing in the driveway. He froze, not wanting to make any sudden moves.

One officer stood behind the car while the other approached the driver’s side and motioned for Michael to roll down the window. Michael pressed the down button, and when the window was halfway down, the officer asked, “Professor Tremaine?”

It was a very bad sign that the cop knew his name, but he kept his cool. He had no doubt that Dean Joyner had given the police his entire work history and a detailed description. He read the name tag on the uniform and said, “Yes, Officer Linwood.”

“Please step out of the car, sir.”

He did as he was told and stood halfway between Officer Linwood and his partner, who had his hand on his gun. Officer Linwood looked around for a few seconds and then reached into the car to pop the trunk. His partner didn’t move but kept his eyes trained on Michael.

“Please step back, sir.”

For a fleeting second, he thought about making a run for it, but he knew he’d be shot dead before he reached the end of the driveway. Officer Linwood walked to the back of the car and lifted the lid of the trunk. He raised one eyebrow and exchanged a glance with his partner as he opened the garbage bag and found garbage. He didn’t move as his eyes slowly searched the garage and then settled on the deep freezer.

Michael relaxed a bit because it was obvious that the cops were looking for a body, and there was no body to be found. He began to formulate a story about why he was at the home of the woman who had accused him of sexual harassment.

Officer Linwood walked over to the chest freezer and opened it. Michael almost smiled as he watched him unload frozen food items and thrown them on the floor. Suddenly, Officer Linwood stopped, drew his gun and turned to look directly at Michael.

“Get on your knees!”

Michael stood paralyzed with fear and confusion. The cop behind him kicked the back of his legs, and he fell on his face. His arms were yanked back. Handcuffs were put on his wrists.

Officer Linwood walked over to join his partner and said, “There’s a woman’s body in the freezer. Frozen solid.”

Michael’s body went limp.

The End