I slouched into my office like a sagging sock, slammed the door behind me, and collapsed into my favorite faux leather chair, recently bought on sale at Wal-Mart for $39.95. That investigation into the disappearance of the conference room clock had been long and grueling, and the administration was still reeling from my revelations about the "clocks for cookies" exchange being held every afternoon in the faculty parking lot. My energy level was so low that even an ant could step over it. It was all I could do to crack open a can of Diet Coke and turn on my favorite e-cigarette. But then she walked into my office.
The woman's gaze hit me hard, like the Norton Anthology of English Literature dropped from a great height, the hardbound version, not the subdivided paperbacks. She had the drained appearance of someone who had corrected one too many comma splices. I could see that she had a problem. A major problem. And that meant her problem was about to be my problem, for the low, low price of $24.99/hour, plus all applicable sales taxes.
I offered her a Diet Coke. She knocked it back like someone who had been drinking Diet Cokes all her life.
"The English Department is in the midst of a crisis," she murmured, toying with her Samsung phone (not, I was relieved to see, one of those exploding tablets, because that would have been distracting, and besides, it's been a while since I replaced my fire extinguisher). "Someone has been stealing the dry erase markers. We suspect a conspiracy."
"Going from zero to sixty pretty quickly there," I remarked, with a dramatic vape. "There could be a grey market in markers that you don't know about. Maybe somebody is collecting them on the sly, in hopes that their descendants can take them on the Antiques Road Show. Could be some kids at work on a postmodern art project involving erasable ink. Why a conspiracy?"
She stared at me as though I had turned into an especially odious misplaced modifier. "We're English professors. We never arrive at the simplest conclusion when a more complicated one would do."
I was about to suggest that the Philosophy Department might lend out a handy Ockham's razor to help them solve that problem--most people don't know this, but they come cheap at the local drugstore--but something about her expression told me that I would be deconstructed on the spot. So I handed her an invoice instead.
My rusty Ford Focus spluttered to campus, looking as decrepit as I felt. I parked it in an out-of-the-way spot where it wouldn't be seen by any suspicious types, and strolled inconspicuously to the humanities building in my blue suede shoes, whistling a tune from Andrea Chénier and keeping on the lookout for any clean whiteboards.
And soon, I saw them. I peeped quickly into each classroom, earning myself glares, hisses, and scowls from faculty members who didn't appreciate that I was on their side. But none of these professors were writing on the whiteboards that festooned the rooms like outdated ghost advertisements that ought to be painted over, except the locals are really attached to that ad for soap that nobody manufactures anymore, and so they all write letters to the local papers, and then it gets into the city papers, and before you know it, social media has got a hold of the whole deal, and--
"I don't understand," said one professor, looking especially tweedy, "why you are in the back of my classroom, eavesdropping on our discussion of Ada Leverson."
"To begin with," I responded, somewhat huffily, "I was developing an epic simile about whiteboards, which you interrupted. Also, I'm investigating the disappearance of your dry erase markers."
Her grimace smeared across her mouth. "Do you realize how much time I've spent trying to convince students not to use 'also' as a transition word?"
This was clearly going nowhere good, so I changed tactics faster than a kid hitting the "like" button on Facebook. "Look," I said, "you clearly aren't writing on the whiteboard. Is this because you're worried that there's no stable relationship between the signifier and its signified? Or are you just tired from playing one too many games of Nethack when you really ought to be reading rough drafts?"
She rolled her eyes. "You apparently haven't read any literary theory published since the 1980s. And I'm not writing on the board because there isn't anything for me to write with."
I was about to say something brilliant in return, maybe a wisecrack about epistemes, but then the solution smacked me in the noggin like a Riverside Chaucer hurled at high speed.
She was back in my office, nibbling on a decadent-looking mascarpone brownie studded with Ghiradelli's chocolate chips--semi-sweet, from the look of them. I tried not to drool.
"There's no conspiracy," I proclaimed grandly, with a flourish of my e-cig. "Just open your briefcase."
This earned me the kind of scorching glare you'd expect from somebody who hatched dragon eggs in funeral pyres. "My briefcase, young woman," she said sternly, "is sacrosanct. It contains nothing but the manuscript of my latest book project, a paradigm-shattering monograph on novels featuring romances between vampires and werewolves at academic conferences, especially the MLA, which I am writing in longhand so that none of my competitors can hack into my computer and steal it."
My long-suffering sigh gusted across the room like an unexpected windstorm in March. "I think you'll find," I said, "the answer to the mystery."
Rolling her eyes,she unsnapped her briefcase. "There's nothing--" she began, and then stopped abruptly, her mouth slowly fluttering agape. I grabbed the briefcase from her, and shook it. Dry-erase markers tumbled to the floor. Pink ones. Black ones. Green ones. Red ones. Most of them didn't really match my 1970s-era orange shag carpet.
"You, and all the other faculty," I trumpeted, gesticulating with a convenient can of Diet Coke (which, unfortunately, was open, sending a flourish of soda across my desk), "have been absent-mindedly taking the markers with you every time you leave the classroom. You, and you alone, are to blame for the marker shortage!"
She clutched her head in horror. "What am I to say at our next department meeting?" she moaned, resembling nothing so much as a student who has just discovered that their fifty-page research paper had been due the week before.
I grinned. "Just say that the case of the little missing markers is solved."
And I handed her the bill.