Madison Night Mystery #8
Hardcover ISBN: 9781954579279
Paperback ISBN: 9781954579149
eBook ISBN: 9781954579132
A professor murdered during office hours. A decorator enrolled in his course. Can she outsmart the killer who designed the perfect crime?
Madison Night just learned that business isn’t sexy. She modeled her decorating career on a Doris Day movie, but after losing her company in a legal battle, the local banks are unimpressed with her unique sales angle. Determined to get her MBA, she attends night school – until her professor is found dead in his office after an intensely-heated lecture. Now the only degree she can think about is murder in the first.
While the college recovers, Madison’s last hope for a loan is denied. The dean resumes the coursework himself, and Madison can’t help wondering if the curriculum holds the clues to the murder. Continuing her education is not without risk; pursuing her MBA may leave her DOA.
Can Madison’s sleuthing make the grade or will failure be a fatal lesson?
Teacher's Threat is the eighth captivating mystery in the Madison Night series. If you like smart protagonists, classroom controversies, and Cabot Cove syndrome, you’ll love Diane Vallere’s enjoyable book.
Preorder Teacher's Threat today!
“I’m sorry, Madison. You’re just not good on paper.”
It was, possibly, my least favorite sentence, and I’d heard versions of it from every bank in town. The loan officer for the Dallas First National Bank who had introduced himself as Pete Cross was the most recent. He smoothed his tie. It was burgundy, black, and cream and had a cello and musical notes as part of the otherwise abstracted pattern. He wore it with a burgundy shirt and black suit. The effect was equal parts mafia groupie and musician.
“What about the apartment building on Gaston Avenue?” I asked.
“The apartment building doesn’t generate enough income to support the size of the loan you want. If you sold the building, you might have the deposit you needed. Have you considered that?”
“That’s not an option.”
“Is there anything else you could use as collateral? Can you sell of some inventory?”
I averted my eyes, though without a computer screen in front of me, my options for distraction were limited. I fixated on the corner of a window on the wall behind Pete’s desk. The blinds had bent, and a shaft of blinding sunlight peeked through like a special effect in a movie about hidden portals to alternate realities. I stared at the corner of sunlight for so long that when I looked back at Pete, his face was replaced with a black square, fuzzy at the edges. I blinked a few times, but it didn’t help.
“I lost my inventory in a lawsuit. I’ve been paying rent on an empty showroom, but until I can fill it, I’m just throwing money away. Clients aren’t interested in a decorator with an empty studio. I need to look like I’m back in business before I can officially get back into business.”
Pete closed my shiny red folder and shook his head. “You’ve been lucky so far, but this,” he said, tapping the closed cover, “isn’t enough.”
“What about letters of recommendation?” I asked.
“Letters of recommendation won’t make the difference. If you have a relationship with the author, the letter’s worth as much as the paper it’s printed on. I’m sorry, Madison,” Pete finished, “My hands are tied. If you had a business degree or a partner, things might be different. You’ve been lucky so far, but the bank doesn’t think you’re a good risk.”
This, it seemed, was the popular opinion amongst the banks of the greater Dallas area: a self-taught interior designer who parlayed a love of Doris Day movies into a mid-century modern decorating business was a poor gamble. Pete was right on that count too: I didn’t look good on paper.
I thanked Pete, collected my folder (now a little worse for wear), and left. At each bank, the story had been the same: in order to loan you money, you have to show us you can pay us back. I understood their reasoning, and as far as requirements to give out money, their expectations were sound. I just didn’t like their lack of confidence in my abilities to do so.
I walked to my car, a vintage blue Alfa Romeo, and sat behind the wheel while considering my options. It was two thirty in the afternoon and I had nowhere to be. I’d spent my day shuttling from bank to bank hoping to charm them with my self-made success, but the plan had backfired. What had Pete just said? If I had a formal business education, things might be different.
Across the street from the Dallas First National Bank was the entrance to a private institute of higher learning. In a town that celebrated the unofficial “everything is bigger in Texas” motto, this college defied expectation by being small. Van Doren College was chiseled into concrete on four-foot-tall walls by an entrance that led to their campus. Before I knew what I was doing, I drove through the gates and parked in a visitor space outside the admissions hall. If I wanted to change minds, I was going to have to start somewhere. Business school, here I come.
A week passed in a flurry of applications, emails, and flat-out begging to talk my way into joining the semester in session. The dean suggested I audit the undergrad courses to get up to speed with the language of business, so I crash-coursed two weeks’ worth of online courses in four days. The antidote to the resulting brain fog was a weekend binge of The Doris Day Show.
For my first day of school, I’d chosen a skirt suit from the wardrobe of Tootie Morgan, an elementary school teacher in the mid-sixties. She favored waist-length jackets, narrow pencil skirts, and striped blouses. Her estate came with five bookcases filled with yearbooks; Tootie had collected one for every class she taught. When the ruling came down on my legal matter and I was forced to turn my inventory over to a competitive designer, the greatest collection of student signatures changed hands. I’d always thought they’d make a great showpiece to an educator’s den, but the last I heard, they were being used to collage a bathroom at a nightclub downtown.
Van Doren College was a privately funded institution established in 1956. They had initially been an all-women’s college and offered degrees in liberal arts, science, education, and business. The school maintained a competitive class size and a reputable curriculum. Instead of wooing prospective students with flashy football teams, they consistently turned out graduates who shaped the way Dallas business was done.
Aside from the dean’s recommendation, I opted for in-person learning over the online experience. I’ve always been a hands-on person, and I doubted education would be different. I still needed a signature from the professor of Radical Business Strategy. I arrived at the college early and sought his office.
I approached a cluster of young blondes who stood on the grass out front. Halfway there, their awareness of me became obvious. They nudged one another in the way teenagers who thought they were being covert sometimes did, and the chatter of girlish conversation ceased.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but do any of you know where I can find Professor Gallagher?”
The smallest of the young women, a blonde in head-to-toe black Lycra and neon pink sneakers, spoke first. “We live in the dorms,” she said, which had nothing to do with my question.
“He’s in his office,” supplied a second blonde, this one both taller and thinner than the first. She wore a cranberry and gold sweatshirt with vdc embroidered on the front, though it had been cropped and the bottom halves of all the letters were missing. She pointed at the building behind me, and her sweatshirt rode up, revealing the bottom of a black sports bra. “In Canfield. He keeps office hours before and after his courses. His first class is at eight.”
“Stalker much?” asked a third blonde with a snicker. The petite blonde and the other blondes laughed, and the tall blonde who had given me the comprehensive breakdown of the professor’s schedule turned pink.
Living in Texas meant being fluent in blonde. That was not an indictment of blondes’ intellect or an endorsement of the dumb blonde stereotype, simply an observation of the sheer number of blondes in the city. Far be it from me to criticize their choice; thanks first to genes and lately to infrequent visits to a local Dallas salon, I was one of them.
“Thank you,” I said to the one who’d given me the information. I put my keys into my vintage white backpack and left them out front.
The Canfield Building wanted to make sure you never forgot where you were. Inside, a banner proclaimed, “Canfield School of Business. Where the field of business has a can-do attitude.” To my immediate left was a glass display case with photos of graduates, and to my right was a school pride kiosk that displayed sweatshirts with logos not unlike the cropped one I’d seen on the tall blonde out front.
Directly in front of me was an open office where a white man in a red bowtie and blue and white checkered shirt stood next to a copy machine.
“Excuse me,” I said to him. “Can you point me in the direction of Professor Gallagher’s office?” I asked.
He pointed down the hall. “Third door on the left,” he said. “If the door is closed, don’t go in.”
I glanced at the clock. “I know. He’s having office hours.”
“Office hours. Right.” He pulled a stack of fresh copies off the machine and jammed them into a nylon messenger bag as if he were afraid I’d see what was on them. It occurred to me that if you were making a hundred copies of anything, you likely expected to distribute them for publicity, which made his clandestine action counterproductive.
I thanked the man and followed his directions. My sneakers were silent against the linoleum tile, which made it easy to overhear raised voices. The closer I got, the clearer it was that the voices came from Professor Gallagher’s office. The door was closed. I hesitated. A door slammed, and then there was silence. I waited awkwardly, and then knocked.
A moment later, a male voice said, “Come in.”
I opened the door. Behind the desk sat a man in his forties. He had brown hair, a gray beard, and an off-season tan. He wore a white polo under a dark gray jacket.
“Professor Gallagher?” I asked. “I’m Madison Night. I’m an MBA candidate. I need your signature to enroll in your Radical Business Strategy course.” My voice trailed off while I waited for a sign that the man was who I thought he was. Aside from “Come in,” he’d been awkwardly silent. Awkward for me, that is. He seemed perfectly at home despite having been interrupted.
“Close the door behind you. Sit down.” I entered and pulled my paperwork out of my backpack. He held his hand up. “I’m not going to sign it,” he said.
“Because you’re late. My class started weeks ago, and you’ll never get caught up.”
“With all due respect, Professor, I have business experience, and I’m a quick study. I’ve spent the past week auditing foundational business courses, and so far I’ve learned nothing new.”
He tipped his chair back and moved his elbows to the armrests on his chair. His fingers remained threaded and rested on his midsection. “What business experience do you have?”
“I’m a decorator.”
He leaned forward, picked up his pen, and resumed whatever task he’d been working on. It was as if I weren’t there. He glanced up at me and pointed at the door. “You can go now. Radical Business Strategy isn’t for you.”
His dismissal wasn’t my first, but it was my most recent. Piled on top of the recent bank rejections, and I’d had just about enough of men in authority telling me what was right for me. I stood and moved my backpack to the chair and then put my palms on the edge of the professor’s desk and leaned toward him.
“For the past decade, I’ve owned a decorating firm. I specialize in mid-century modern design, which I learned from studying Doris Day movies. I have acquired inventory at a fraction of its price by reading the obituaries, identifying women of a certain age, and contacting their next of kin. You would be surprised how many people my age lack nostalgia when money is involved.”
He set down his pen and leaned back again. “Who taught you to do that?”
“Aside from the experience I picked up working for a decorator in Pennsylvania over a decade ago, I taught myself everything I know. I’ve made contacts with funeral homes, powder coaters, and trash men. My business has posted double- and triple-digit increases since I opened. I’ve had an offer from one of the most successful architects in Dallas that I turned down because I liked working for myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“You sound like you have a good thing going, but you’re here at a college, well past an age when most people attend.” He held up his hand. “No offense, but you’re not exactly a schoolgirl.”
This was what I thought of as a Doris Day moment. How often did people think they knew who, or what, she was? How many times did people write her off as fluff and then learn she was smart, talented, funny, and sexy? How much time would she have wasted if she got angry every time they did?
I forced a smile and softened my voice. “Professor Gallagher. I believe I can learn something new from your course, and I believe my experience might inspire your students. Starting my company wasn’t easy, but I persisted, and I’m prepared to do that again.” I pulled the paperwork out of my backpack, unfolded the documents, and set them in front of him. I picked up his pen and turned it around and extended it. “If you want me to go away, all you have to do is sign. Let me decide if Radical Business Strategy is right for me.”
For longer than felt comfortable, we remained in that position: me extending his pen, him sitting back with his hands folded across his midsection. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw the rise and fall of my chest with each breath. My palms dampened with sweat and my pulse thudded in my neck. The hint of a cramp announced itself behind my right shoulder blade.
“That was a pop quiz. You passed.” He took the pen. He signed the paperwork. He set the pen down and handed me the pages. “Be in class tomorrow morning at eight,” he said. “Room 102. I can’t say you’ll survive, but it will be fun watching you try.”