Murder at St. Max

The extremely short first chapter of the first volume of the luminous St. Max mystery series, occurring at the last outpost of Western civilization

I was minding my own business in the St. Max mailroom on a stunning October morning when Joan Berlin rushed in and exclaimed, “Did you hear?”

Joan had a reputation for breathlessness. I expected perhaps a very exciting announcement of the day’s lunch menu. She had extremely slender hands that always seemed to be looking for something to do, and she began tapping her fingers against the edge of her mail slot as she awaited my reply.

“Not yet,” I sighed.

“Mrs. Hunt is dead,” she whispered, as if death wasn’t dramatic enough in its own right. “Murdered.”

Immediately I felt guilty for having been minding my own business. That’s the effect that Olivia Hunt had on people. In her presence you felt that you should be doing, thinking or feeling something else and that only she knew what it was. It was as if she was admonishing me from beyond the grave: “How dare you mind your own business when I’ve died?”

“The police found her on her back steps,” Joan said urgently. “Dead, this morning.”

“What were the police doing there?”

“Somebody called them, of course.”

“What happened?”

“How am I supposed to know, John?”

I had no idea how she was supposed to know. I’d been minding my own business. Everything I knew about Olivia Hunt’s death had come from Joan in the previous fifteen seconds. I felt I should say something sympathetic or helpful and almost asked, “Is there anything I can do for her?” but I caught myself and asked Joan if we, as teachers, had been asked to do anything for the school.

“I don’t know. Smitty just told me about it. I’m sure Malcolm will call a meeting.” Smitty was our chaplain and Malcolm Cunningham our headmaster at St. Max, over which Olivia had always hovered as a somewhat ominous benefactress emeritus.

Joan turned her back to me and rummaged through her mail. I turned and looked out the tall window beside me. A New England autumn morning unfolded across the wide lawns and perfect white buildings of St. Max.

“I suppose we’ll be hearing more about it soon,” I said stupidly.

“One would suppose.” Joan flipped through her mail as if she’d received something very important and walked away.

I examined the stack of papers in my own mailbox, then sauntered out the side door, into the autumnal light. It reflected with a kind of purity from the white siding of the dining hall, the chapel and the other buildings clustered around the center of this secluded campus. There was purposefulness in the way the adolescent boys and girls walked to their appointments along the curving paths, moving from sunlight to shade and back again. It might be likely, I thought, that someone had died a tragic death here once upon a time, perhaps a boy who was a particularly strong rower, who had hopes of competing at Henley. Maybe he’d died on a stormy afternoon as he practiced on the pond beyond all reason and with a noble passion, and maybe now his name adorned a plaque outside a reading room donated by his very-well-to-do family. That would fit; murder didn’t. I made my way to the classroom building as if the news had little to do with me. Except for my subsequent bungling, it might not have.