A short story
By Gregory Wilson Taylor
An Open Letter to the Judging Panel of the 2017 Jesperson University “How To…” Essay Contest:
From: David Prentice-Holmes
TO: Dr. Jack Warden, M.A., Ph.D., Dean, Faculty of Arts
Dr. Eric Blakelock, M.A., LL.B., Ph.D., Director, English Department, Faculty of Arts
Andrea (“Andi”) Wilhelmina Keyes, B.A., M.A., Professor, English Department, Faculty of Arts
I must first acknowledge that neither the format nor the topic of the following essay submission falls readily within the norm for a contest in which past winners have included: “How to Rebuild the Republican Party,” (a convincing and, it turned out, prescient argument that the next republican leader would be a narcissistic clown who noted (apparently, with great insight), that if you tell people a lie three times, they will believe it), “How to Carve a Turkey,” (written by a medical student describing her first cadaver class), and “How to Grow Rich on $100 a Week,” (sensible investment advice for people, especially students, without much money.)
However, I would ask that, as academic arbiters, as former associates of my father and, to the extent appropriate, as his colleagues and friends, you may accept my sincere efforts here to reflect my father’s guidance towards innovation, honesty and clarity in all that we do, and that you judge it on this basis alone. Bluntly put, please do me the favor and, more importantly, my father the honor, of reading the attached submission through to the end before making your final judgments, whatever they may be.
“How (Not) to Murder Your Husband”
An Essay Submitted for the 2017 “How To…” Essay Competition
English Department, Jesperson University
by David Prentice-Holmes, B.A.
- According to the FBI, there were 14,487 murders committed in the US in 2012.
- Two out of three murderers were either related or known to their victims.
- About 500,000 people die every year of a heart attack.
- Not all “heart attacks” are “natural causes” of death.
Introduction: This essay concerns the lessons to be learned from the sudden death of my father, James Prentice-Holmes, M.A., Ph.D., former Faculty Head, English Department, Jesperson University, Sommerhill, Washington, who died at the age of 52 on March 1, 2012. The official police investigation into his demise was terminated on March 7, 2012, following the filing by the County Coroner of a report that determined: “Death by Natural Cause – Ruptured Myocardial Infarction.”
Previously unexamined evidence presented here for the first time considers an alternate Cause of Death.
Each of you addressed here, the three members of the Faculty Committee charged with judging this contest, knew my father reasonably well. However, for any other reader who knew little more than his public persona, allow me first to introduce you to the private man. James Prentice-Holmes was born in 1954 in Toronto, Canada, the only son of David Holmes, a laborer, and his homemaker wife, Janice Prentice-Holmes. Based upon my paternal grandmother’s name, it should be immediately apparent that she was an early feminist, for double-naming did not become popular until the early 1970’s. Beyond engendering this outspoken respect for the intelligence and rights of women in our heavily paternalistic society, my grandmother’s primary influence on my father was her persistent development of and support for his love of the English language and of telling a good story. In fact, my father often explained to me that his parents left Canada when he was just ten not only because they felt that his education would be better served, but because they believed his imagination would be less fettered in America. The family moved first to New York and then to Boston where my father eventually earned his doctorate in comparative literature. By the time he was finished, he had already sold his first “Professor Will Stokes” novel. As much of the reading-world knows, my father’s favorite protagonist was a university professor who used a combination of logic, human psychology and literary history to solve challenging homicides. The year of his graduation he met and married my mother, Alice Prentice-Holmes (nee Fanshawe), a student in Northeastern University’s School of Architecture. In 1986, they had me, their one and only child, the author of this paper, David Prentice-Holmes. Seven years later, my father moved the family to Waterston, Washington, where he had accepted a teaching position in the English Department at Jesperson University.
It is important to realize that my father did not need the job. Before the move, six of his novels had each sold more than one million copies in the US alone. The last four had been translated and published in several languages and the advance offered by Doubleday for his next six books in the series totaled eight million dollars. While my father was always embarrassed by these sums, by almost any reasonable standard, he was a wealthy man. More importantly, he was also a man with a generous heart, an open mind and willingness to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt. In other words, despite the highly skeptical turn of mind of Professor Stokes, my father was an incredibly trusting man. According to my mother, this trait made him a wonderful husband, father and teacher at the same time it made him, in her words, “an innocent to the ways of the world.”
My mother was first diagnosed with Cancer almost five years ago now. “Acute myeloid leukemia. AML” Looking back, I remember one particularly telling incident when she was in the hospital enduring yet one more series of tests. Dad stormed into her oncologist’s private office and started yelling. It turned out Dr. Feinstein said the Cancer had already progressed so far that my mother had either ignored the symptoms or deliberately hidden them. My dad didn’t want to hear that his wife had tried to protect him for as long as she could rather than get help for herself. Even more, he couldn’t face the fact that he had obviously been so tied up in his writing and teaching that he had completely missed the fact that the woman he loved more than anything else in the world was wasting away, right next to him, more rapidly than he had realized.
“She said it was the flu,” was the only thing he ever said to me about it.
To say that my father was devastated by the loss of my mother would be to understate the case beyond telling. More precisely, I believe my father went mad in the months immediately following the diagnosis and before my mother died and that he remained on the razor’s edge of sanity for nearly a year afterwards. It was during this latter time that he, as head of the university’s English Department, received a Letter of Application1 from one of this panel’s distinguished numbers – Andrea Wilhelmina Keyes. Professor Keyes, as your attached letter states, you were an associate professor at Archadia Western College. What this correspondence does not mention is that this was the third such application2,3,4 that you had submitted. On each of the previous occasions, some your associates on the Faculty Committee – including the two other members of this panel – had declined to offer you a position. All evidence indicates that this decision was primarily due to the fact that you, Ms. Keyes, had published nothing of academic note since your Master’s Thesis and graduation. As I am certain that you will fervently disagree with this appraisal, I have attached copies of the committee’s private notes and minutes to the relevant meetings5, copies of which were contained in my late father’s files. (Of course, as a member of that committee, Dr. Blakelock, you would be able to confirm the accuracy of this evidence.)
By now, I am confident that each of you will be not only extremely uneasy with the content and tone of this submission, but also, nearly convinced that it is your duty to stop reading this essay. In addition to reiterating the sentiments made in my introductory note, please be assured that it will be in the best interests of yourselves and of the university that you resist such a presumptive course. Further, I promise you on the grave and memory of my father, that at least one of you will read each and every word contained here. You see, of the numerous teachings I have gleaned from Professor Keyes, none has been more central to my education as a writer than her command, “know your audience.” That was one of those clichés that Andi – as you, Professor Keyes, insisted I call you just before you and my father were married at our estate north of the city – pounded into my head. As Dr. Warden and Dr. Blakelock will readily be able to discover, you repeated those same three words at virtually every lecture you gave. It was your single-note warning to all of your malleable Creative Writing students, an admonition apparently intended to keep our writing clear and focused.
And gentlemen, believe me, I know nobody more clear and focused than Andi Keyes. When she sets her sights on something she wants, nothing will stop her. While I didn’t see it right away, eventually, the evidence was overwhelming – Professor Keyes was out to bag herself a trophy. And her finely-focused cross-hairs were right on the bank account of one James Prentice-Holmes. My father.
As the panel knows, Andi and I both started at Jesperson in the fall of 2002. I was a freshman, majoring in English, and she was my first creative writing instructor.
Neither then, nor since, have I dreamed I would be as good a writer as my father, but I did have the bug. According to Prentice-Holmes family lore, I began writing in earnest when I was eight. Both of my parents encouraged me and gave me all sorts of praise, but I never really believed them when they said I had real talent. Still, I was a sophomore in high school when Sherlock Holmes Magazine published my first short story. Talk about over the moon… Not me. My parents. Seeing the looks on their faces was all I needed. So I told them I had changed my mind about going to State. Instead, I was determined to go to Jesperson. The point of all of this is that I think that was the last time I saw both of my parents happy.
In all fairness, the next time I saw my father truly happy was several months after Andi joined the faculty, soon after the two of them began dating. Of course, there were times when I saw them together that I felt my father had actually betrayed my mother. But then I saw him throw back his head in that big, open mouthed laugh of his. I was certain it would have been exactly what she would have wanted for him. That same night, after Andi left our place, I felt guilty and wanted to talk to Dad about this developing change of heart. I found him in his den, crying. Neither of us really had to say anything about it after that. We both knew that nobody would ever replace my mother. We figured that all that Andi or any other woman could ever do would be to remind him that he was still alive. In a sense, it was our fatal mistake.
Andi, I do regret the fact that I will not see the look on your face when you read this essay. Knowing you as I have come to do over the past three years, I am certain that first bite of fear will very quickly be replaced by anger. Soon though, you will calm down and even have a good old chuckle. After all, you know I have already told the police I was sure that you killed my father. I did my best to argue about how you had tricked him into marrying you and how you were only after his money. I also pointed out that Dad had absolutely no history of heart trouble and it had been less than two months since he had had a full physical – and one that included a stress test. While the cops listened intently, taking lots of notes, since I didn’t have any actual proof that my dad didn’t die of a heart attack like the coroner’s report had determined, and since they found nothing in his toxicology report to suggest anything else, it looked like the end of my one-son crusade.
Even so, I was sure that one of the cops, a Detective Estherhausen, almost believed me. He was the one who suggested I forget about what I believed had happened and get back to something I loved. The result is this essay.
It is common gossip on campus that, at the time my father and Andi announced they were getting married, most assumed it was because they had to. After all, while Dad was in his early fifties, Andi was a good-looking thirty-two-year old. Having seen the way other men, my father’s age and younger, react to her, convinces me that she could have had virtually any man she wanted. In fact, this was what raised the first questions in my mind.
While the police declined to look into Andi’s background, I did. Of course, Dad had left me very well off financially. It took some time, but I found quite a good private detective based in Seattle who provided me with several interesting exhibits. The first is a copy of “Andi’s” real birth certificate6, which shows that her name was Elena Odessa Petrova. She was born in New York of a Russian émigré mother. No crime there, of course, except, perhaps, of omission. However, her birth certificate shows she is four years older than she had told Dad she was. It also shows that she lied about her birthdate on her application to teach at Jesperson7, her driver’s license8, tax filings9 and pretty well every other application or certificate we’ve come across10. We were never able to locate the father’s name.
According to several interviews11-18 my investigator conducted with neighbors and the police, it wasn’t easy for little Elena growing up in Little Moscow and Coney Island. As the daughter of a single mother who leveraged the natural physical assets she was born with to survive, it must have looked to her that life itself was an extremely tenuous proposition in which the law and other rules “normal” Americans lived by had no real meaning. And survive she did. Not only did Elena Odessa Petrova learn to speak English with barely a trace of a Russian accent, but she graduated from high school with distinction16. Impressive. As I wrote earlier, not someone who takes ‘no’ for an answer.
She was 19 the first time she was married17. Mrs. Nikita Lebedev. It seems he was a low level hood, an enforcer who, like her, desperately wanted at least the appearance of respectability. Two years later and the same day he was shot to death during a botched bank robbery, Elena disappeared. At least, she thought she did. The FBI already had her on its radar and she was intercepted trying to sneak up to Canada because she was convinced her first husband had been executed and that she would be next. As I said, the private eye I found was good. I’ve attached a copy of the booking sheet with Andi-Elena’s picture under her old name18 and a couple of very interesting newspaper clippings19. We’re not positive about all of the details at this point, but it looks like the Feds pressured her into giving them everything she knew about this new phenomenon that was coming into the States called “the Russian mob.” In exchange, they helped her change her identity. We found her driver’s license and student card from the university where she received her degrees20,21. New name, new life. The world’s her oyster. Again, she should be congratulated.
All she had to do was be available to the Feds from time to time. Which was why she went to India22-26. The first time was in 2000, the year before she made her first application to teach at Jesperson. The second time was during this past Christmas break. What she told my dad and I was that she had to visit a sick friend in London and that, since dad was doing another book tour, the timing was perfect. Again, I’ve attached copies of her airline ticket stubs27,28 and of the pages in her passport stamped by Indian customs. This is, of course, her second passport29,30.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks after the wedding that everything between my father and Andi changed. She went out on her own all of the time and started flying into rages for no apparent reason. At first, she apologized a lot, but Dad was incredibly unhappy. Again, anyone who knew him realized this. I don’t know what the real trigger was but I did suspect that Andi was having an affair. Dad didn’t want to hear about it. I think that was his way of dealing with how much of a fool he believed he had allowed himself to become.
So here we come to the most interesting part, at least the part that Detective Estherhausen finds most interesting. Anyone who knows Professor Keyes, at least in her latest incarnation, knows that she is fascinated with natural herbs and exotic plants, the more exotic the better. In fact, she had Dad build her a special greenhouse. Like everything else, this was not just a casual interest for her. It was a passion. I guess this is a good point in the narrative to tell you that, just before I dropped off three copies of this essay to Dr. Blakelock’s secretary, I had this sympathetic police detective come to our home. His people took away that odd-looking tree growing in the green ceramic pot in the corner. Andi knows the one. I explained to Detective Estherhausen that it has one of those plant signs stuck into the soil, but with the wrong name. It is actually called Cerbera odollam. The suicide tree. It doesn’t grow in this country but it’s actually quite common in Asia. Including in India. Frankly, I don’t know how she got it through customs here, but my guess is that the feds – unwittingly or not – helped her. In any case, this is a fascinating coincidence because a toxicologist told me that, if you mix the crushed up leaves of the tree in with spicy food – and you all know Dad loved his food hot – you can’t taste the poison at all. Also, because it’s not indigenous to America and there have been no reported cases of the stuff, our forensics people don’t normally screen for it. Besides, cerbera poisoning acts exactly like… a heart attack. Apparently it blocks something in the heart muscle and really messes up the heart’s rhythm.
Now, I know you’re all trying to absorb this last part. Probably re-reading it. That’s fine, because it really is a nearly perfect murder weapon. And for this little English professor to have come up with it has got to be worth one more huge “congrats.”
Anyway, Detective Estherhausen says they still have tissue samples from my dad’s autopsy and the toxicologists think that should be enough now that they know what to look for. It’s possible they’ll have to dig him up, but that’s a last resort. They told me they use something called high-performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry and apparently they’re pretty confident they’ll find the stuff if it’s there. The results should be in by the end of the week.
I wish I could say I don’t know what is going to happen next, but I do. If Andi has read this right away, and given the title and all, I suspect she did, there should be a knock on her office door within the next few minutes. I gave the cops a copy of this little essay first, before I showed them the tree and explained about the contest. They said they would keep an eye on her but didn’t mind waiting an hour or so. Not with what my step-mother… I mean, my step-murderer has to look forward to. What I pray to God will be a very long and very, very miserable life.
So, Distinguished Judges, I hope that you find this essay of interest, and that, in my father’s memory, deserving of your most serious consideration.
©2014, Greg W. Taylor