The Child of the Marshalsea
"Have you read this book? It's wonderful!"
The deep voice made me jump. I had been staring into my coffee, stirring it round in circles with one of those silly little black straws that are so inefficient for actually incorporating the sugar I hadn't put in it anyway. I looked up at the complete stranger standing by my table and wondered why on earth he was talking to me, what he really wanted, and how I could get rid of him without being rude. He was probably a reporter. Maybe I would be rude anyway.
"This book? Have you read it? I just read it twice. Now I'd like to give it away."
A reporter giving something instead of demanding something? That was new. Automatically I reached out for the thick paperback. Little Dorrit. Without warning the tears welled up and spilled over my cheeks. Just what I needed. A perfect photo op. I fumbled in my purse for the tissues I knew weren't there and found napkins pressed into my hand.
When I could see again, I found that the giver-away of Dickens books had pulled up a chair and sat down on my left. I saw a very tall man, with long, lean limbs, spiky, short dark hair, and deep, dark eyes set in a long, gentle face. His elbows were on his knees, and he was leaning forward and watching me with a strange expression. It was that expression that did me in. His brows were lowered a little, his lips drawn into a tight line, and his eyes—his eyes reflected my pain, as if he had been inside my heart and become me when I looked at the book he gave me.
"I'm sorry," he said, like he really was, and for more than making me cry.
"It's not your fault—you couldn't have known."
"That my father calls me his Little Dorrit." This time I managed to keep the tears back.
"Then your name must be Amy."
I managed a watery smile. "There aren't many people who would be able to guess that, even my father's literature students."
"You're Nathaniel Doran's daughter?"
"You didn't know? Then you're not a reporter."
He chuckled, a deep sound that matched his dark good looks. "No, I'm not. Actually…I'm your father's replacement. Temporary replacement."
I wanted to loathe him, but I couldn't. "Oh."
"My name is Jarod. Jarod Clennam."
I stared at him. "You're kidding."
"Well, I could say I opened up Little Dorrit and stole the name of the nicest character…but then I would have to call myself Jarod Pancks."
I snorted into my coffee and spilled it in helpless laughter. This man was more like a yacht or a swift, elegant speedboat than the puffing little tugboat Dickens describes Mr. Pancks as. Grinning he helped me mop up my mess.
"Let me get you some more. What are you having?"
"The dark Sumatra, black."
He went inside the coffee shop and returned with two white mugs and a handful of sugar and creamer packets. I watched in horror as he dumped about three creamers and four sugars into what once had been one of the best cups of coffee in town. He noticed my wide eyes and raised eyebrows.
"Why don't you just go to a drainage ditch and scoop up some muddy water to carry your creamer and sugar?"
"Why even drink coffee if you're just going to destroy it? Or better yet, go to a gas station and buy some of the damaged water they call coffee?"
I wasn't sure what had gotten in to me. I never talk to strangers like that, and I've learned to restrain myself when it comes to criticizing other people's coffee habits. It was just that I felt I had known him my entire life. He was gaping at me as if I had suddenly sprouted ears like Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"Sorry," I muttered.
"No—please. Explain to me what you mean. Is there a difference between this coffee and a gas station's coffee?"
"Is there a difference?" I almost screamed. I took a deep breath. "Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools? Look, Mr. Pancks—"
"Jarod," he laughed.
"Look, Jarod. There are two basic kinds of coffee. Robusta and Arabica. The difference between them is like the difference between a Harlequin romance writer and Dickens."
He looked blank. A literature professor? Really?
I tried again. "Between a Neon and a Rolls Royce." That registered. "Robusta is cheap, easily produced, and about as worthy to be called coffee as a cup of muddy drain water. Your basic gas station coffee or what you get in a can of Folgers. Its only value is in its caffeine, and you can get that from tea. Arabica has its various grades, but the coffee sold by Zara's here is about as good as I've had anywhere. They roast it themselves, weekly. They buy it direct from farmers for fair prices. They buy the best they can get. They train their baristas the way people train restaurant sommeliers. Their coffee is sheer quality and unmatched flavor, and you don't even bother to taste it before you adulterate it? You must treat your coffee with respect. They have real half-and-half, if you must weaken it."
"Half of what?"
"What? Half-and-half?" He looked blank again. "Half cream, half milk? Comes in little pink cartons from the grocery store? How can you not know half-and-half?"
"I have never heard of any of this coffee lore. My first experience with coffee was at a police station."
"Well, that explains it. Look, try this." I pushed my untouched cup of strong black Sumatra at him.
He picked it up and took a sip. His eyes went wide, and he took another drink. "That is wonderful. It never occurred to me—I like things sweet. I didn't know coffee could be like this. But now you've lost your coffee again."
"Don't bother. I'm actually awash with it."
"And with sadness," he said softly.
I clenched my jaw. I was not about to start crying in public again.
"Why does your father call you Little Dorrit?"
"Because I've taken care of him since my mother died. He says he hopes he isn't as troublesome as Mr. Dorrit. He's not. He's like what Mr. Dorrit might be like if he weren't a thorough and complete selfish idiot. Actually, Mr. Dorrit has no character at all beyond being a thorough and complete selfish idiot, but that's beside the point. Maybe he's a little more like Mr. Clennam, with strong flavors of Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Jarndyce, and Bob Cratchitt. I'm not really very much like Amy Dorrit, either, but between ourselves we call the school the Marshalsea sometimes."
Jarod chuckled. "That bad?"
"No, it's a lovely place. Or was—" I hurried over that. "We used to find people who reminded us of Dickens' characters and call them by their Dickens names in private. We've even got a Young John."
Jarod's eyes crinkled with amusement. "Let me guess. A young son of someone who works at the school who is violently in love with you."
"You've got it. It's annoying but cute. He's six years younger than I am! One of the students is a Nicholas Nickleby to the life—and he's even found a Madeline to rescue from penury and marry, and there's a girl I think would make a perfect Esther Summerson—before the smallpox—though I don't really know anything about her."
"What about Sydney Carton?"
"Oh, if there were a Sydney Carton, I'd marry him. No Charles Darnay for this Lucie Manette."
"What, a scoundrel and wastrel?"
"No," I said softly, "a man beaten down by life who, when it matters most, makes the ultimate sacrifice."
His face went strange, took on a pinched look, his eyes suddenly the eyes of a child who has been badly hurt. I stared at him, and after a moment the look faded, as if he hadn't known it had been there.
"Little Dorrit, why don't you tell me about your father?"
I took a deep breath. "You can read about it in the newspapers."
"I already have. I want to hear your side of the story."
"He didn't do it!" I burst out.
"I believe you."
I looked at him skeptically, but his eyes were steady and grave. A yellow leaf fell out of the tree over us and landed on the book.
"Fine. I'll tell you. But not here. I'm likely to start crying all over again."
"Alright. Will you walk me to the Marshalsea?"
He managed to make me smile again. "Certainly, Mr. Clennam."
He collected our mugs. "Just remember it's Jarod, not Arthur," he said over his shoulder as he took them inside.
I picked up Little Dorrit, slightly the worse for wear for having coffee spilled on it, and tucked the yellow leaf inside for a bookmark. "What are you, Arthur's long-lost brother?" I asked when he returned.
That strange, pinched look came over his face again but was quickly gone. "Maybe. You never know who I'll turn out to be."
We set off down the tree-lined road. Morrison is a beautiful little town, like many of the towns on the East Coast, full of lovely old brick and stone buildings. The trees were just starting to change colors. I sighed.
"My father loves this time of year."
"So do I. The colors in the trees…" He shook his head, his eyes wide, like someone seeing something new and wonderful.
"That's one of the reasons why he'd never do something like this. It sounds silly, but if he were going to kill someone, it wouldn't be in the fall. Of course the police wouldn't accept an explanation like that."
"I would. Psychological explanations are very apt. For instance, knowing your father as you do, can you think of any situations under which he might kill someone?"
"Only if they were going to hurt me. But he wouldn't stalk them and torture them with drugs. He would finish them off neatly and humanely. He would die—or kill, which is harder—to protect me, but he wouldn't torture. It's ridiculous. Especially not one of his students. He always says the teacher has a responsibility to the students as an authority figure. Whoever did this knew a lot about my dad but didn't understand how he thinks."
"That is a very good observation."
I flushed. "Thanks. I'm interested in psychology."
"So tell me about what happened from your point of view."
I drew in a deep breath, willing calmness. "A student didn't show up for class two days in a row. That was no surprise. Students cut class all the time. I did it myself a time or two—didn't you?"
"No," he said, "but it wasn't for lack of trying."
I quirked an eyebrow at him. "Strict school?"
"Very," he said, oddly grim. Visions of Nicholas Nickleby floated through my head.
"Well, this student had a bad habit of skipping class, usually managing to pass most of his classes because he was actually brilliant. His name was Tim Morone."
"The young man your father is accused of killing."
"Yes," I said with a sigh. "They didn't get along. Tim was arrogant, and he made it a habit to oppose all my father's theories about English literature. He claimed to believe that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare—stuff like that, you know? My father doesn't like confrontation, and it was actually a relief when Tim wasn't in class. That was why he noticed. He'd flunked Tim in a class last year, and Tim took it up with the administration, saying it was because he didn't want him going out with me—"
"You were going out with him?"
"Me? Never! But he wanted me to, and he was very unpleasant when I wouldn't. That's something the police have tried to put a spotlight on, believe me. Father kills daughter's stalker. But Tim wasn't a stalker. He was just an arrogant twit who believed he was God's gift to women."
Jarod gave a quiet snort, and I realized it had been a laugh. "That's a brilliant description."
"What? God's gift to women? How can you never have heard that before?"
He shrugged. "So he didn't fit the profile of a stalker."
"No, thank goodness. But it was all a mess. The administration backed my father, and Tim was furious, but he kept taking his classes because even he had to admit my father's the greatest authority on English literature in the state, and that was Tim's degree. Plus Tim liked harassing him. My father's a patient man. He can take a lot of harassment quietly and go on with life. People who don't know him very well think he's unusually unemotional."
"I know someone like that," Jarod muttered.
"Well, he's not, really. He's just reserved and introverted. It's actually easier not to show some emotions than to show them. That tells against him, too, in the eyes of the police, because they can say he was like a volcano getting ready to blow. Passive-aggressive, you know. But it wasn't like that. Tim only had one year left. My father is good at waiting for things to blow over and then getting on with life. It's easier emotionally than blowing up about it."
"Is that how it works?" he murmured, and I had a feeling he wasn't talking about my situation at all.
"It is with my father. Well, last weekend we were just getting up on Sunday morning when the police stormed into our house and arrested him without the slightest warning." I was cold suddenly, though the fall day was quite fine. "I never imagined what that would be like. Even good friends knock before they go into your house around here. There was no knock—suddenly the door just crashed open as if—as if it wasn't even our house anymore. Have you ever had a gun pointed in your face?"
"Yes." It was said very quietly, with a darkness in the undertone.
"It's awful. Paralyzing. Them all just coming in, violently, when we'd been so quiet. It was—it was—"
"Intrusive…terrifying. Like a violation." Unconsciously we'd stopped walking, and I stared up at him with the feeling that inside his mind he was there in our house, in a bathrobe, getting breakfast ready, feeling all the shock and fear, spilling the orange juice I had spilled.
"And then—the handcuffs," I whispered. "All those words they say—I didn't understand a word they were saying—it felt like he was being kidnapped. Taking him away, shoving him in a car, and a woman asking me questions, and all I could think was that he hadn't had his coffee yet." I chuckled weakly, and some spell seemed to break. He was back in his own eyes, Jarod Clennam again instead of me.
"You're cold." He reached out his hands to my arms and rubbed them warmingly. "It's alright. It's over now."
I sighed. "No. It's just begun." We walked again. "Some students had found Tim—tied up and dead—near the river. It must have been awful. It's so awful to think—someone I have known has been murdered. There's a strange hole in the world, even if I couldn't stand him. It's just all the more grotesque and frightening that they're accusing my father of it."
"Tell me why they're accusing your father."
"It's all so strange. They found letters in my father's office—blackmail letters from Tim, threatening to expose him for something to the school administration if he didn't pay something—but there were no specifics."
"So Tim was blackmailing your father."
"But he wasn't!"
He stared at me. "He wasn't?"
"Don't you think I would know if my father was being blackmailed? Even if he hid it from me—he has these nervous habits when he's trying to hide something upsetting. Like the time he found his secretary was stealing from him. She was a good friend of mine, and he didn't want me to know. He's really good at it, but I can tell. I would have known if he was hiding something from me, especially something as awful as blackmail!"
"The police seem to have overlooked an extremely important resource."
I blushed again. "None of this is evidence."
"Perhaps not, but they might not have been so ready to arrest him. So then the letters were planted."
"I suppose they must have been. They only have his word to say they weren't there before. But why?"
"To implicate your father in the crime. But the question is, did the real murderer do so because your father was handy or because the true purpose of the crime was to discredit him? Why would someone want to do that to an inoffensive literature professor in a small-town liberal arts school?"
I stared at him, something tickling my mind. "I'm so stupid! I can't believe I didn't think of it—my brain has been completely frozen for a week, but—"
"But nothing. You've probably been operating under a certain amount of traumatic shock. What have you just thought of?"
"A while ago—maybe a month—Dad told me he'd discovered something about someone at the school. Something that appeared pretty bad. He wouldn't tell me what or who. It really disturbed him. He was the only one who knew about it, which meant he had to do something about it, and, like I said, he hates confrontation, so it would have taken him some time to work up the nerve. I thought maybe it turned out to be not as bad as he thought, because he never said anything about it again. But what if he did do something—mention it to the person, maybe? That would be his old-fashioned, honorable way of doing it, to let the other fellow turn himself in like a gentleman, and what if the other fellow turned out to be a Sir Mulberry Hawk instead of a Lord Verisopht?"
"Refused to do the honorable thing, you mean, when fairly caught and instead took an underhanded way of dealing with it?"
"Yes. I don't know that my father has ever completely understood that the world doesn't work like a Dickens novel."
"But it does. Dickens wrote about the world the way it is. He captured the essence of the evil and the goodness, the sheer silliness and the grandeur that is human nature. The world still has its Sir Mulberry Hawks, who will resort to despicable methods to get out of the consequences of their own crimes, and its Lord Verisophts—and Sydney Cartons, too, I daresay—who will follow the winds wherever they lead until it's time to make a stand and pay for it with their lives, and its Newman Noggses, who work for the bad guy and are afraid to stand up and fight the evil they see but still—sometimes—show their sympathy for the good, give the hero a little moral support—"
That look was back again for the third time, the one that said something was eating him inside. And clearly it wasn't something he wanted to share, so I put a teasing note in my voice when I said, "And its Mr. Clennams?"
"I only hope I can be as good a man as Arthur Clennam," he said soberly.
"But maybe not so much of an idiot when it comes to finances and women? Don't worry, Mr. Clennam. I'm not laying claim to you because of our shared literary identities."
"Thank you," he said dryly. "I'm sorry—I didn't mean to lecture. I should save it for my classes."
"I'm going to sit in on your classes. But I've just thought of something else, Jarod. If the sole purpose was to discredit my father so his accusations would mean nothing, why hurt Tim before killing him? It would work to simply kill him. It takes a certain kind of mind to want to fill a young man full of some kind of chemical that causes such pain as that stuff used on poor Tim."
"You're right. Maybe someone with a vendetta against Tim Morone as well. A dual purpose. Amy, what do you do?"
I blinked at the sudden change of topic. "I work at a day care. Well, they gave me a couple weeks off—I'm not sure if it's because they're sympathetic or because they're afraid I'll start murdering the children. It's not what I want to do forever. I'm not sure what is."
"Have you ever considered criminal psychology?"
My eyebrows shot up. "No, I haven't."
"You should think about it. Later, when we've cleared your father."
"We? Isn't that the police's job?"
"If they manage to do it, I applaud them. I've worked with the police, and I know what a hard, thankless task it often is. But I've often seen justice wildly miscarried, and I won't let that happen to your father."
"Are you sure you're just a literature professor?"
He gave me a raised eyebrow, and that was all.
"Jarod, what kind of a literature professor only just became acquainted with Little Dorrit?"
Another raised eyebrow, asking for an explanation.
"When you first came up to me, you said you'd just read it twice. I gleaned for the first time out of that. Right or wrong?"
"And what was that giving it away about? Stealth professorial tactics?"
He laughed, a very nice laugh. "I recently bought all of Dickens' books, and as I've finished reading them, I've been giving them away. People know about so few of his books. They should read them. And you're right. I only just discovered Little Dorrit. In fact, it was the first Dickens book I ever read. I picked it up on a bus, and I saved it to read again last."
"You've never read a book by Dickens before? Not even A Christmas Carol?"
"And what kind of a literature professor are you?"
"A Russian literature professor. Crime and Punishment, The Gulag Archipelago, that sort of thing. They needed someone to fulfill this position quickly, I needed a position quickly, and I made sure I got it. I am now having a crash course in English literature. It would help if I could look over your father's notes."
"You're insane. You can't teach three advanced literature courses in a subject you know nothing about!"
"Actually, I can, Little Dorrit. Do I get to see your father's notes?"
"Yes," I sighed. "You may satisfy your curiosity as to his blackmailing habits all you like." That earned me another eyebrow. "Here is the Marshalsea Prison, Mr. Clennam."Ret