There’s a certain freedom in being obscure. Like with the murder. Her name might’ve been Danielle. That’s what she said, but then again, sex was seldom a matter of being honest. Terah had met her in the classroom and although he knew the trope was tired—he’d been a writer—he’d also been a professor. He’d known the subtle pressure of constantly refreshing populations of young coeds. And hiring someone as an adjunct was an invitation to become a drifter.
He wasn’t a predator. He was just weak. Besides, grandfathers on both sides had been teachers that’d married their students. It’d been common in those days, and what made some time-honored family traditions illegal? Shouldn’t that itself be illegal? As long as both parties are mature and willing. Such thoughts kept him company on the long January walk.
Once out of the poisonous orbit of New York City, New Jersey was a pretty state. Here in the west it was hilly and almost rural. He was far enough inland now that snow accumulation could regularly take place. That was good because abandoned human shelters couldn’t be counted on, and snow was actually a great insulator. Nature could play cruel tricks on mammals that had shed their hair. Terah knew that layers would keep you warm. If too warm, your base layer would be wet and that gave you a chill. To get that layer off, though, you had to strip down which was the last thing you wanted to do, so that you could replace it. Wicking technology had, of course, made this less of a problem for the affluent, but for guys on the run working with materials at hand was the order of the day. Walking like this, thinking of Danielle, he’d overheat.
Hunterdon County had quite a few abandoned structures. Suckered into voting Republican, these people suffered under the policies that increased their taxes while reducing their benefits. This led to abandoned places, but to use them properly took time. You had to scope them out, make sure nobody else was up to your game. Drifters are loyal to no country. They pledge allegiance to survival. Terah’s path to drifterhood started with a misspent youth earning a Ph.D.
He worried that younger adjuncts might not understand that when he had started his degree it was when there were promises of jobs, unlike today when anyone entering a doctoral program was either a fool or exceptionally arrogant. No, back in the 1980s there’d been genuine fear that there wouldn’t be enough professors, and that was a lack unimaginable in academia. Promising students like young Mr. Economy were urged, practically begged, to take up the call. The payoff for all those years of study would be comfort and prestige. Like recruiting posters during war time, his bearded, pipe-smoking profs made it sound magical. The recession of the 1990s laid the axe at the root of the academia-nut tree, however. All of those promised jobs vanished in a way David Copperfield could only envy.
Terah Economy, Ph.D., had landed one of the surviving posts, however. It was at a third-rate school that granted degrees simply for vital signs after four years of lectures, but it was still better than working for a living. And since Dr. Economy had specialized in religion, he knew better than to be unappreciative of table scraps. Even the dogs get those. Breck University seldom made the list of places to advance one’s career. Although he had no way of measuring it—statistics could be made to lie—faculty hooking up with coeds seemed approved practice there. Guys singleminded enough to get through doctoral programs often tended to be inept in relationships. Life was a series of tradeoffs.
Yet now in the icy January breeze whistling through the Delaware Water Gap and up through the woods of the famed Appalachian Trail, clarity permeated his body with the wind. He’d been set up. Holders of any advanced degrees (from any school but Harvard), were now an endangered species. Breck couldn’t afford to keep faculty in non-essential chairs, and when the music stopped Terah had found all the seats taken.
Danielle, though, stayed with him. Those years as an adjunct in New Jersey had been tricky. First of all, finding housing in the reach of mere mortals was difficult. Thankfully Danielle had been smart enough to major in chemistry and the pharmaceutical giants rewarded their own. To contribute to their joint bank account, Terah had to do a bit of driving. Adjunct professors were only allowed two courses per semester, otherwise they’d qualify for benefits—something that had to be avoided at all costs. You didn’t want people thinking there were actual professorships available. Two courses at Rutgers, another two at Montclair State, and two more at TCNJ meant he earned less than a janitor at any of them, but they did okay with Danielle’s salary. That’s why it made no sense to accuse him of murder. Academics were naive, but even they understood the danger of sawing branches on the trunk side of the tree from where you sat.
In retrospect, he should probably have stayed and reported it. They didn’t teach you how to handle such things in grad school. And emotions still worked, even with the rational left hemisphere thrumming as it outgrew the creative right. He’d simply panicked. Like all frightened animals, he fled.
His logic worked like this: as a professional he was totally obscure. Nobody knew his name or his work. How would anyone be able to find such a cipher if he were on the run? If they couldn’t find him settled, then mobile he’d vanish. It was only after he set out on foot—cars were too easily traced—that he’d reasoned it out. Although he’d published, nobody really had any interest in his specific research areas. They were too busy in their own esoteric subjects. Now that there was a body on the floor, however, suddenly Terah Economy was “a person of interest.” A twenty-first century Herostratus. Someone who’d do anything for his fifteen seconds. And since he knew Herostratus’ name, it must’ve worked in his case. Maybe he’d done it after all.
The gloomy weather had played with his mind sufficiently to cast a villain’s cape before the face of any possible reality. Hunger gnawed at him the way it always did between dumpsters behind civilized shopping plazas that housed fast-food venders. He felt lightheaded, out of touch with the dwindling certainties of New Jersey. That’s why he doubted it when he saw a castle through the naked trees on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware.