The John Donne Mystery
Every morning, I’m the person who unlocks the door and turns on the lights to the Tecumseh University Police Station. It’s my habit to arrive at 7:30, so I can boot the computer and handle parking issues for students who forgot their permit or received tickets the previous day. Being an early bird is an excellent way to cut down on complaints, which are a constant reminder of your lowly status when you worked the desk doing parking in a cop shop. Tecumseh University Police is a small department stranded somewhere between being security and a legitimate police agency. There are two officers on the payroll. The most important part of their job is to come up with at least one crime to enter as a Clery Stat at the end of the year. Federal law requires disclosure of crime statistics on or near college campuses participating in financial aid programs. Our campus police haven’t come up with a single entry, but expectation is in the air. The millennium is right around the corner. If the dire predictions of the mayhem to be expected when the calendar rolls over to the year 2000 hold true, the Tecumseh University Police Department will be swamped with crime statistics. One can only hope Y2K proves to live up to its claim of computer meltdown and global mayhem. It might be the year our campus police will have something to do besides talk politics and gossip.
I knew there was trouble overnight when I strolled through the open door and saw the Chief sitting behind his desk. Every light in the office was blazing, so he hadn’t been sleeping in there like he did on the nights when he and Evelyn had a fight. If that was the case, he would still be snoring with his head on the desk. I tried not to make a sound when I lowered myself into the chair placed in front of the counter, where I worked from eight until five. In my experience, it’s always a good idea not to attract attention to yourself when you work in a police office. My days are spent with one foot in the hood and the other in this campus cop shop. I’ve noticed the best way to navigate both environments is to keep my mouth shut and blend into the woodwork. Invisibility is a radically underestimated superpower. I was more than content to order supplies, dispatch officers, sell parking permits and collect ticket money. The less the cops paid attention to me sitting here at the counter, the better my day moved along without complications.
I only had time to log my username and password into the computer when I heard the Chief bellow, “When you get done with what you got to do in there, I need to see you.” The Chief sometimes reminded me of the ogre in the children’s book I used to read to my kids when they were young.
The thought crossed my mind I was about to get my pink slip. One of the previous day’s violators must have complained to a higher authority about the way I handled their parking issue. The worst sin a person sitting at a job like mine can commit is for someone to claim they’d been rude. It wasn’t like I’d never been thrown under the bus before over one of these groundless complaints. It has happened so many times there are permanent tire marks engraved into my back. The usual procedure is to send me to a customer service class where I can learn how to placate irrational people. The complaint must have been over the top this time for them to call the chief in before eight in the morning. His typical time of arrival is somewhere after 9 a.m. “Keep your mouth shut. Take his bullshit with a smile. You have bills to pay. You need this stupid job,” was the mantra I repeated to myself as I took my time getting prepared for the encounter with the obese police officer sitting behind the sacred desk from where he wielded his magic wand of authority.
I walked through the door and stepped into the Chief’s inner sanctuary and noticed his glasses were riding low on his nose. His bloodshot eyes stared at me from the center of his chubby face. The man was at least seventy-five pounds overweight if he was an ounce. It was a good thing campus police don’t need to run very often. He’d have a heart attack before he traveled a block. Beads of sweat glistened on his wrinkled forehead. A bag of leftovers from a local fast food restaurant sat on his cluttered desk. A manila folder was open in front of him. Two more were stacked to his right. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man as I crossed my arms in front of me and waited to hear his verdict.
“I know you have considerable Bible knowledge. I need you to tell me where I can find this verse in the scriptures. Officer Franklin came across that crumpled paper on one of the tables in the cafeteria last night. We believe this individual may be a threat to the university.” I took the tattered paper from his outstretched fingers and looked over the handwritten verse. Two things captured my attention. The first was the intricate way the letters on the page were scrolled. The second issue was I was sure the passage had never appeared anywhere in the Bible, but the words sounded hauntingly familiar.
“I’m pretty sure this isn’t scripture, but I know I’ve read it somewhere,” I said, attempting to hand the squashed paper back to him. I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought I wasn’t going to get fired.
“You’re no help. There’s a student’s name written at the bottom of the page. Run his name through the system and get his class schedule. I need to have a conversation with this kid once I find him,” the Chief said.
“Give me a chance to catch my breath. I’ll see what I can find out once I get caught up with my work.” I hurried back to the front counter. A student moved through the door who needed to purchase a parking permit. He appealed a ticket for having an expired one dangling from his rearview mirror. His argument centered on the fact that nobody had personally informed him he needed to buy a new one every semester to give him the right to park on university property. I had three e-mails requesting, which required an immediate response. The phone rang as soon after I got the e-mails out of the way. A parent wanted to argue about their kid’s bill, which was past due. Once I got all the morning debris swept to the side, I unfolded the handwritten verse and looked at the name at the bottom of the page. I had to suppress the urge to laugh out loud. I typed the name into the computer program, which would allow me to do a search of all Tecumseh University students who were currently enrolled in the college. I needed to be sure of my facts, so I extended the search to include all students for the past five years.
I was sure I knew how the verse got left on the table the night before, but I needed to be one hundred percent right. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake when it came to campus security. I moved my cursor to the internet search browser and type, “Death be not Proud,” into the opening. Within seconds, I knew I had solved the mystery, but I needed substantial evidence if I was going to convince the stubborn cop sitting in the next room that he was about to make a big mistake by pushing the issue of John Donne’s identity. After all, I wasn’t the police. He’d pointed out that fact to me at least a dozen times in the past. Its unfortunate literature wasn’t one of the requirements necessary to obtain a criminal justice degree. He might have been able to solve the mystery of John Donne Himself. I pulled the schedule of events from a folder I kept on my desk and placed it beside the computer printout I made of the poem I found on the internet. One phone call told me the rest of the story. The walls in the office are paper thin. I could hear him talking on the phone with the Dean of Students about the importance of interviewing the person who went by the name of John Donne A.S.A.P. My boss was about to make a big fool of himself. It crossed my mind I should stick to my rule about keeping my mouth shut and let him play the Barny Fife role out to the end. I rejected the idea. After all, I needed this stupid job.
I knocked on the door as soon as he hung up the phone. “Come in,” he growled from behind his desk.
I opened the door and studied him for a second. He reminded me of a grizzly bear who hadn’t had much sleep. “I believe I’ve located the person you’re looking for.” I crossed my arms over my chest. The computer printout of the John Donne poem and the university events schedule dangled from my fingers.
“Were you able to find Donne’s schedule. We need to pull him out of class. It’s high priority for us to interrogate him this morning.”
“An interview with Donne might be a little difficult unless you want to dig him up out of the ground. The author of that poem has been buried in a grave In a London cemetery since 1631. If you don’t believe me, do a computer search on John Donne. There’s a lot of stuff about him online.” I watched a look of confusion spread across the overweigh police officer’s face.
“What do you mean by that?” The Chief’s jowls puffed out like a blowfish.
“John Donne was a seventeenth-century English poet. I knew the verse you handed me was familiar. I didn’t connect the dots until I read the name. Poets had a lot to say about death back then since they had to deal with stuff like the bubonic plague, consumption, smallpox, and let’s not forget syphilis. What he’s saying in that poem is he’s going to cheat death when he comes out on the other side due to the resurrection. The guy also wrote a poem about no man being an island, but that’s not relevant to this situation.”
“That’s just great. What you did was take us back to square one, only now we don’t even have a lead on the name of a student to connect this threat to. Both officer Franklin and I feel this is a crucial security matter.” The Chief snarled like a dog not willing to let go of a bone.
I handed him the campus schedule of events and watched his face turn red as he scanned the page. “They had a poetry jam last night in the cafeteria. Participants were supposed to bring in one of their favorite verses to share. I called the professor sponsoring the event. She said one of her best students, Beth Howard, read the John Donne poem. The instructor assured me the student isn’t a threat to herself or others. She’s just smart.”
“Find the Howard kid’s schedule. We still need to have a talk with her,” the Chief said, not willing to let go of his one Clery statistic for the year.
“Do you want to embarrass the poor girl?” I said, backing toward the door. I had a bad feeling I was going to regret proving this egotistical man wrong. I decided not to bother with looking up Beth Howard’s class schedule. The issue of the note left on the cafeteria table would die a quick death once the Chief figured out it was in his best interest to extinguish the John Donne issue before it erupted into a flame.
“Shut the door behind you when you leave.” I heard a string of cuss words echo under his breath as I made my way out of the room. The dead English poet lost him the one justification to protect his phony-baloney job. He might be the one who needed to freshen up his resume if the promised chaos of Y2K didn’t materialize.