The strange thing about Williams was that nobody had ever seen him. The faculty guidebook showed a gray box labeled not pictured; group photos in the Winchester yearbooks only showed Williams’s hand or arm, even though the captions advertised his presence. The college’s website gave a brief curriculum vitae but no photographic evidence. By that Monday afternoon, the first day of classes for the fall term at Winchester University, the search for Williams had, for some of his students, become almost compulsive.
It was as if Williams were hiding himself from them, as if he were teasing them somehow. It had become a tradition at Winchester for students to find a picture of their professors before classes began; in this way, it was commonly believed, they could allay some of the anxiety when the man or woman strode into the room. It was a method of one-upping the faculty, of stealing some of their precious authority.
And so this thing with Williams had become a big deal. Some of the students of Logic and Reasoning 204 were so incensed over Williams’s invisibility that they were convinced they were being tricked. One student, a Young Republican who carried a briefcase to each class, brought out his battered and veined Code of Conduct, and much of the class hovered over him while he searched the index for words like Deception and Faculty Misconduct.
It was as they were doing this that Williams himself walked into the room. He was wearing faded blue jeans, which was highly unusual for a professor at Winchester. He was also carrying nothing, which was even more curious than his dress. No papers, no manila envelopes, no coffee mug. He was wearing a flannel shirt that he had tucked in. No belt. Nikes. The professor was clean-shaven, another anomaly on campus, and his face was youthful (for a man clearly in his early sixties) and pitted with acne scars on the left side that brought to mind, both in their color and shape, pennies flattened on a railroad track. Yet he was handsome in a certain light, and he moved so softly and quietly that he gave the impression of extreme gentleness, his hands sometimes out before him as if he were feeling his way into the dark or perhaps gesturing, Don’t be scared; I’m right behind you.
Professor Williams took his place at the podium at the front of the room. There were fifteen students in the class. Eight female, seven male. They were all white, which was the rule rather than the exception in a Winchester classroom. They were all sharply dressed in clothes their parents had bought them over the summer. Many of them were upperclassmen, as this course was a prerequisite for third-year seminars in philosophy and English. Because the students were mostly philosophy and lit majors, the room had an air of uncertainty. These were students who did not know where they were going in life but were generally accomplished. “Smart kids,” a Winchester professor once wryly said of his philosophy students, “who were all seduced by Descartes’ brain-in-a-vat theory in Philo 101.”
Williams opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say a word, someone’s cell phone chirped. He waited while the student shamefully dug in her bag to find the offending object. In fact, the professor seemed more anxious than the girl: he looked down, red-faced, at his podium while the girl furiously mashed buttons. Some professors would embarrass the girl further, make her hum the ring tone or have the conversation while standing in front of the class or something just as discomforting.
But Williams simply waited. And when the phone had been silenced he said, in a voice that was soft and commanding at the same time, “There’s been a murder.”
No one knew how to take this announcement. A young man in the back row laughed aloud.
Williams smiled. He stared down at his podium again and brushed something off the surface. “Not a real murder,” he said. “No. This is a murder that may happen in the future. A . . .” The man paused, looked up at the class, waved his hand in the air as if he were trying to come up with the word by catching it in his palm.
“A hypothetical,” said a girl in the front row.
“Yes!” said Williams. He was pleased with the word, as it suited the conditions of his story quite well. “A hypothetical. A potential murder. Murder in the future tense. Because, you see, many things have to happen before this murder is to occur. Many things that you, if you are clever enough, can keep from happening.”
He fell silent. They met in the Seminary Building, the oldest of Winchester’s classroom buildings. Sunlight poured in through the high, bare windows and a few students were shielding their eyes from it. This was a bane of this particular classroom, Seminary East. The sun thing, as it was referred to, had become such a problem that afternoon classes, as Logic and Reasoning 204 was, were often canceled because the fierce light would give the lecturer or the students migraine headaches.
“What kinds of things?” someone finally said.
Williams turned toward the dry erase board and searched the tray for something to write with, but because it was the first day of classes and professors were hoarding their supplies, no one had left a marker there. Sighing, he turned back to the class.
“Time, for instance,” he said. “There is the variable of time. If the victim and her killer or killers—”
“Potential killer,” said the girl who had offered hypothetical. She was into it now. She was tapping notes on her laptop and nodding feverishly as Williams spoke.
“Yes. If the victim and her potential killer or killers are not found in a certain amount of time, then she will die.”
“How long?” someone asked.
“Six weeks from Wednesday,” the professor said, and everyone noted that the fall term was exactly six weeks long. The fall term was followed by what students referred to as Winchester term, an eight- week session when many students studied abroad. Logic and Reasoning 204—and all the classes during the fall term—promised to be highly competitive, because so many students would be trying to impress the Europe and South America Committees to win a coveted spot on a foreign campus.
“The other variables,” Williams went on, “are these: place, motive, and circumstance.”
It was obvious that Williams would have written these four words on the board if he’d had the means. The girl in front put each word on the screen of her laptop: time, place, motive, circumstance. Bolded them all.
“So,” he said then. “I’ll see you Wednesday.”
The professor turned to walk out the door of Seminary East, which was still standing open. Class had lasted just ten minutes. Almost imperceptibly, a moment of panic passed over the students. They were trapped between wanting to get out and enjoy the rest of the day (Williams’s class, so late in the afternoon, would be their last) and finding out what Williams and his missing girl were really about.
“Wait,” the girl with the laptop finally said.
Williams was almost out the door, but he spun in the threshold and said, “Yes?”
“How are we supposed to stop it?” she asked.
Williams came back into the room. He had a cautious expression on his face, as if he were wary about his students, so young and innocent, getting involved in such a mess.
“What kinds of questions are pertinent?” he asked.
The girl seemed confused. She looked at Williams over the top of her computer. She knew that she needed to tread lightly here. She was caught, as she often was, between the impulse to dominate the action in the classroom and remaining so silent that the teacher forgot her presence. Thus the laptop; she had found that the sound of her fingers on the keys made her noticeable. She didn’t need to talk, didn’t need to fear getting on the other students’ nerves with her theories and ideas. She could peck at the keyboard during lectures and the professor would know she was engaged. And it had worked. She passed all her classes with high marks and remained well liked on campus, not a bookish nerd at all but rather as popular as a firmly middle-glass girl with frizzy, stubborn hair and square-lens glasses (the kind she saw Joan Didion wearing on C-Span) who read Willa Cather in her free time could possibly be. She was most definitely in, as the Delta sisters she hung around with might say. She and her friend Summer McCoy referred to themselves as Betweeners—those girls who were comfortable enough to refuse to rush a sorority but connected enough to party at sorority and fraternity houses. Between worlds: it was, the girl felt, the best place to be at Winchester.
Yet here was Williams asking, What kinds of questions are pertinent?— a question that begged other, deeper questions, and she was stumped. If she answered, whole philosophies might open up and the class might run down an irrelevant current that would take up the full hour. If she remained silent, Williams might take her
for a passive-aggressive brownnoser who hollowly pecked on computer keys.
“Who is she?” asked a boy in the back row, saving the girl from having to make her decision. He was the student who had laughed earlier, his normal classroom gesture. So many things seemed, for some reason, ridiculously absurd to him. Meaningless. Logic, for instance. He had signed up for Williams’s class and had immediately wondered why he would waste his time. There was no logic, he knew. There were only vague choices to be made, problems to be contemplated but not solved, areas of the strictest gray to subjectively drone on about (because if you solved those questions, what would future classes have to talk about?). Yet after those choices were made and the problems considered, the world stayed pretty much how it was: maddeningly off-kilter.
His name was Brian House. Like a lot of people, Brian had learned to act at Winchester, to be someone he wasn’t. No one knew, for instance, of the secret pain he had been suffering for the past ten months. No one knew that he didn’t listen to those bands—Built to Spill, Spoon, the Shins—that he wore on his T-shirts. He went about his business—the fraternities, the intramurals, the study sessions—as if he cared, but really he loathed the whole process. He had thought about not returning to Winchester after the summer, but how could he tell his parents that? After the void that his older brother’s death had left in their lives, there was no way they could understand why he, the one who had been spared, would squander his opportunities. His mother had even begun wearing Winchester U sweatshirts; she had slapped a my child is a winchester colonel bumper sticker on her Volvo. Brian knew that he couldn’t disappoint her by letting her in on his dirty secret: that it had all become, after Marcus, pitifully insignificant to him.
Brian was tall, nearly lanky, and he been shaving his head because that’s what his brother had done. The girls at Winchester took Brian’s apathy for a sort of sexy rebellion, and they were often eager to share ideas with him in his dorm room late at night. And that was another thing. He had a girlfriend back home in New York, and shouldn’t he feel bad about deceiving her? He did and he didn’t. On one hand, what he was doing was clearly a kind of betrayal. He knew what that felt like. Yet a part of him, that uncaring and atrophied part of his soul, could not bring himself to feel sorry for his actions. In the end it wouldn’t amount to anything but a girl being hurt. It was, like all things, illogical. It wasn’t life and death.
“That is the first question,” said Williams now. He was becoming more engaged. It appeared that he wanted to give answers to certain questions, but the right questions had to be asked first. “Who is she? Her name is Polly.”
Some of the students laughed. “Funny name,” said someone.
“Yes, it is funny,” agreed Williams.
“ ‘Polly wants a cracker,’ ” said Brian, “ ‘but I think I should get off her first.’ It’s a Kurt Cobain song.” The boy frowned. He did not like artifice, especially artifice that had been stolen from popular culture, perhaps because his own artificialness—his own insistence to put on a face and conform—was what he most disliked about himself. He decided that he was not going to like this class, no matter what happened from this point forward.
“That’s right,” Williams said. “But there are other questions.”
“How old is she?” called a student from the back.
“She is eighteen years old.” The average age of the class when they first came to Winchester.
“What does she look like?” asked another student.
“She’s petite. She wears a lot of jewelry. She has various piercings: high on her ears, in her earlobes, in her navel. She has a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on her lower back. She has auburn streaks in her hair and is self-conscious about her height. She wishes she were taller.” In short, she looked just like many of them.
“Where is she?” asked Brian.
“Place,” said Williams.
“How did she get there?” wondered the boy.
“Circumstance.” The last of the underscored ideas. Translation: we aren’t that far along yet.
“Bullshit,” Brian muttered.
“Maybe,” said Williams. “Maybe it is all bullshit. But Polly is in danger, and if you do not find her before your six weeks are up, then she will be murdered.”
The class was silent once again. Seminary East’s internal clock ticked further forward, the light touching the face of Williams’s podium.
“What does all this have to do with logic?” asked the boy with the briefcase. He was the most practical of the bunch. He was the only student in the class taking Logic and Reasoning 204 as an elective— that is, as a chosen punishment. He was a liberal arts major, a throwback at Winchester. In the education reform–obsessed 1980s, Winchester had become a university. This small college in the central Indiana town of DeLane would always be overshadowed by the famous Catholic school 150 miles to the northwest, which was unfortunate, considering, as the brochures gladly pointed out, Winchester graduated more Rhodes and Fulbright scholars than Notre Dame and IU Bloomington combined.
When Winchester became a university, the curriculum predictably became more technical. More specific. Almost twenty years later there was still a rift among the faculty, and on some of the old guard’s letterhead the seal still read Winchester College. The father of the boy with the briefcase had gone to the old Winchester and was now a professor at Temple in mathematics. His son was not nearly as brilliant with numbers, but he was always the one to take the straightest and least difficult line to the end of the maze.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Obedience by Will Lavender. Copyright © 2008 by Will Lavender. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.