The sky was overcast, sombre and bleak. The wind was still, the air heavy and muggy. A large mass of students, faculty, friends and acquaintances in black attire were assembled at Pinewood Hill cemetery. A fresh rectangular gap in the earth awaited the body of Renner’s professor, his thesis adviser, and friend.
The priest zealously prayed over Professor Shubally’s spiritless body, about life after death and other nonsense Renner didn’t believe in. Milena stood by his side, their arms entwined. She hadn’t met the professor, but that didn’t stop her from sniffling into a tissue at regular intervals.
The funeral had been postponed until now—a distant relative was to fly in from Ireland for the funeral but at the last minute cancelled due to lack of finances for the trip. The postponement meant Renner could pay his final respects to Dr. Shubally.
The priest’s voice rose, his sermon increasingly passionate in delivery, but Renner’s attention was pulled elsewhere, his neck prickling, followed by the familiar feeling of being watched. Stronger this time.
The word, his name, echoed so loudly that he thought the other mourners could hear the voice too. But, not one person reacted. All eyes remained focused mainly on the priest or looking down at their laps in reverence. All except for Paul. His ex-roommate was openly glaring at Renner, Wendy sullen at his side. When Paul noticed Renner looking back at him, he gave a military salute, a nod of the head, and then looked away.
Was Paul the one he felt watching him? The uncomfortable feeling lingered even after Paul looked away. Why did this keep happening to him?
Was he losing his mind? Milena must have sensed his discomfort, squeezing his arm reassuringly.
After the beautiful, mahogany casket was lowered underground and covered in dirt, the crowd dispersed. Milena went home, while Renner joined other students at a reception in the university cafeteria, where he sat quietly, sipping a hot cup of chamomile tea with honey. As soon as the reception concluded, he strode over to the faculty director’s office to inquire about Professor Shubally’s personal effects. Were they still in his house or had they been packed up and placed in storage? His entire thesis, data, and research had been left behind with the professor. In order to continue his thesis, which he wanted to do immediately, he required his materials.
He also needed to check in on his rats, see how they fared while he was away, especially because the professor obviously hadn’t been tending to them as planned.
The faculty adviser contacted the biology department where Dr. Branson, Dr. Shubally’s closest friend, worked. He had a spare key to the professor’s home and had been the unlucky one to find the professor after he died. Following a brief explanation of Renner’s predicament, Dr. Branson promised he would let Renner in to grab his thesis paper and research.
He arrived at the professor’s home first, pacing back and forth through the unkempt lawn. Dr. Branson appeared shortly after Renner, his large swell of red hair marching up the street difficult to miss. With faces grave, they exchanged greetings, and condolences, and then the doctor unlocked the front door. They were immediately assaulted by the stench of spoiled meat. Renner wondered how long Dr. Shubally’s body had lain unnoticed before being discovered by Dr. Branson.
“Thank you for meeting me here. I know this must be difficult for you.” Renner patted the professor on the back.
“Yes, the past two weeks have been tough. He was such a wonderful man. So, you said he had your thesis materials here?”
“Let me help you look.”
Inch by inch they scoured the home, combing through all of the professor’s belongings, even digging through the foul-smelling garbage cans.
No research, no thesis, no data was found. Renner felt the first glimmer of panic.
“Are you sure there weren’t any items removed from the premises? Anything put into storage, perhaps?”
“As far as I know, nobody’s been to the place since I found him, besides the paramedics,” the doctor replied.
The panic swelled. Without his research, his project was doomed. He would have to start from scratch, but he didn’t have that sort of time. Why hadn’t he made a backup set of research documents?
“If you do find anything has been removed, can you contact me immediately?”
The man nodded. Renner wrote down Milena’s phone number on a slip of paper and handed the slip over to the doctor.
“Thank you for your help.”
Renner left, his hopes deflated. Next stop was the lab. Was there a chance that before the professor died he left the research there, maybe with the secretary, to await Renner’s return? A long shot but worth checking out.
He entered the long, familiar halls of the lab building. Making his way into the office at the far end of the hallway he approa