“Mr. McKenzie, there’s a coffee shop on Grand and Snelling. Do you know it?”
“Dunn Bros,” I said.
“Meet me in twenty minutes.”
Yes, it was that Dunn Bros, kitty-corner to the Macalester campus. I found a table more or less in the center of the room, and while I waited, I wondered if I was in the same chair where Muffie Gabler’s ex-boyfriend sat while making out with Professor Patricia Castlerock. I might have asked, except the way the lady blew in through the door and marched on my position, I didn’t think she would have appreciated the question.
“May I get you something?” I asked.
“No,” Castlerock said. “I don’t want to be here that long.”
I motioned toward the chair opposite where I sat. She took it.
“He was not a student when I knew him,” Castlerock said. She spoke almost breathlessly, as if she had prepared her remarks in advance and was desperate to get them out. “It’s important that you understand that I did nothing unethical. Our relationship was not in violation of any college rule or regulation. If you wish to question my judgment, feel free. My moral principles remain intact.”
A lot of questions came to mind at that moment. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to ask any of them before a young woman wearing a white bib apron that seemed too big for her approached.
“What’ll ya have, Prof?” she asked. “The usual?”
Castlerock’s demeanor changed abruptly. Her voice softened and she smiled demurely.
“Good afternoon, Casey,” she said. “Yes, perhaps I will stay a bit longer. How about—I think a small café mocha today with plenty of whipped cream.”
“For you, sir?”
“Coffee,” I said. “Black.”
“Ahh, old school.”
I liked that she said that, although I had a sneaking suspicion she was making fun of me.
“How’s your paper coming?” Castlerock asked. There was genuine concern in her voice.
“It’s really hard,” Casey said.
“It’s meant to be, dear.”
I don’t know why, but the girl seemed cheered by the remark. Both she and Castlerock were smiling, yet as soon as Casey turned her back to the table, the professor’s expression became troubled again and her voice hardened.
“Who are you exactly?” she asked. “What do you want?”
“You’re getting a little ahead of me, Professor,” I said. “I’m not here to put you into the jackpot.” Her expression changed to one of curiosity. “It’s police slang. It means trouble, get you in trouble.”
“Oh.” She spoke as if she had just learned something and was happy about it. I liked her for that.
“As I said earlier, my name is McKenzie, and I’m looking for the man in the photograph I showed you.”
“Is that what he called himself?”
“Are you saying that isn’t his real name?”
“No, it’s not.”
“What is his name?”
“That, Professor, is a long story. I’ll be happy to tell it, if you tell me yours.”
She agreed, so I explained about Jax Abana—but not Juan Carlos Navarre—right up to the point where Muffie Gabler saw her and Abana at Dunn Bros. I even used the term Muffie had employed, tongue-hockey.
When I finished, Professor Castlerock glanced around the coffeehouse as if it suddenly contained bad memories. By then Casey had delivered our beverages. Castlerock took a sip from the mug and came away with a dollop of whipped cream on her nose. She brushed it away with the back of her hand.
“David seemed so much older than the boy you describe,” she said. “Certainly he pretended to be older. Twenty-four, twenty-five. I spend a great deal of time with postadolescents, McKenzie. The way David behaved around me, I believed he was that mature. I met him here. It might have been at this very table. He approached me; used the book I was reading as his hook. The book was about the Harlem Renaissance, and David said he had opinions on the subject that he would be happy to share if only I allowed him to buy a dessert to go with my coffee. I was flattered, to be honest. A lot of very pretty coeds spend time here, yet he was interested in me. So, in exchange for a double chocolate brownie, I offered him a seat at my table.”
“Did he know anything about the Renaissance?” I asked.
“He knew enough to quote Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, even Duke Ellington.”
“Hell, I can do that.”
“Mr. McKenzie, he knew me. He knew the papers I wrote on the subject. He knew my book.”
The man does his homework, doesn’t he? my inner voice said.
“What did he want?” I asked aloud.
“Eventually he told me he wanted to go to college. He said he was employed in the construction industry, yet it was becoming increasingly difficult to find work because of the housing crisis. He claimed he wasn’t bitter about it. He said it only encouraged him to finally pursue his dream to become a writer.”