“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing” – Abraham Lincoln
Involuntarily, my fingertips grip the arms of Head Porter’s chair just that little bit more tightly. The Bursar is smiling through the veil of his unnaturally jet hair and his every gesture exudes affable indifference. Not his eyes, though. Especially not the one partly hidden by his sweeping fringe. They exude something else entirely, although what it is I couldn’t say. Thin lips creep back across a row of gleaming white teeth as the smile is expanded.
“Ah! Good evening, Deputy Head Porter,” he says. “How nice to see you again. I was hoping to catch a word with your superior.”
“He is… unavailable,” I reply, remembering to keep in mind that this gentleman is ultimately responsible for overseeing the Porters’ Lodge.
“What a shame. When might he become available, do you think?”
“I imagine not until tomorrow morning, Sir. Is there anything I can help with?”
“Perhaps you can” and The Bursar takes the seat usually occupied by my good self, on the opposite side of Head Porter’s desk. I shuffle myself into a more attentive poise and adopt my famed ‘helpful’ expression. “The thing is, Deputy Head Porter, I am feeling a little perturbed by the plethora of corpses that seem to find their way onto College grounds.” You and me both, old chap.
“It is a damned inconvenience, Sir” I say, meaning every word. The Bursar stares as politely as it is possible to do so; I can feel his eyes searching mine for something lurking behind my words. He will find very little, I am sure.
“You know, Deputy Head Porter, I do you the disservice of relating an untruth.”
“How so, Sir?”
“I am not at all perturbed by corpses. Corpses do not perturb me in the slightest. But The Master – now, he is less than enamoured…” which is a bit rich for a man who solves sudoku puzzles in crypts “…It looks so bad for the College, don’t you know. College reputation is such a fragile thing, as is any reputation, wouldn’t you say?”
“I cannot help but agree, Sir.” I am not so sure that I do agree, however. In my experience, reputations are rather hard to shift.
“There is some concern that perhaps the old ways might have found new hands to work them, Deputy Head Porter?”
Silence like ice falls across the room. I wrestle the chill in my spine into submission and focus the cold in my bones into searing points behind my eyes. I have a terrible inkling as to what he might be referring. The very thing we spent the last academic year battling (and defeating, I might add) has returned to the forefront of College consciousness. But that is impossible. The Vicious Circle are now all dead. Except for one…
“None remain” I answer, simply.
“Are you quite sure about that, Deputy Head Porter?” The Bursar leans closer, almost threatening, cajoling. I have had quite enough of this.
“Now listen here,” I start “I had all this with Professor K. I would rather you chaps from The Fellowship just said what you mean and I can guarantee you that you will receive some straight-talking in return.”
The Bursar drifts back into his seat, yet retains a certain degree of malice.
“The dear Professor K. Yes. You were quite the great chums, were you not?” He does not wait for me to answer. “You must miss him dreadfully. He was an active member of… the Circle, was he not? Which is why he had to die, as I understand it. The rules of that strange organisation seem fairly clear. Those who expose The Circle have no need for pension plans, it seems. Which is one less thing to worry about. No matter. It is no bad thing as that organisation is a great threat to the academic reputation of Old College. The Master is quite clear that any stragglers of The Vicious Circle are to be dealt with quite absolutely.”
“And, indeed, they were, Sir” I reply. “None remain.”
“And yet you are here, quite unscathed, despite keeping close quarters with Professor K?”
Hardly unscathed. I narrowly escaped being burned alive, poisoned and being thrown off the flag tower. But I can see what he is getting at. The Circle was supposedly vanquished and yet here are two more fresh cadavers in College grounds. But this must be something else entirely, mustn’t it? It must be, I know that. The Bursar seems to think differently.
“Your predecessor tried, and failed, to kill me on no fewer than three separate occasions,” I say through clenched teeth. “He went to great lengths to provide an inventive selection of accidental deaths for me. And yet, as you say, here I am. How can I be one of The Circle? I have outlasted them all.”
“The Master is most definite on this matter,” says The Bursar, darkly. “The reputation of College must be maintained. If these latest deaths are not as they seem, there will certainly be a most finite resolution for whosoever is responsible.”
The Bursar sweeps to his feet and out of Head Porter’s office in one fluid and dreadful movement, the door closing firmly behind him. I let out a sigh of frustration. Not only has yet another impossible Fellow been appointed by Old College, this one seems to think I am somehow involved in cheerfully indiscriminate murder. I shake my head. This job doesn’t get any easier, certainly.
I need a drink. Time to make my way to The Albatross to meet with Head Porter.