Chapter no 18

Hell Bent

Alex sat through Modern Poets with Mercy the next day, letting the words of “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” roll over her. With heaven knows how many angels all riding on the broad black brim of your hat, please come flying. When she read words like that, heard them in her head, she felt the pull of another life; she could see herself living it as clearly as if she were absorbing a Gray’s memories, listening to the horrible, beautiful lines of “The Sheep Child,” or setting down her pen as the professor of her history class on the Peloponnesian War compared Demosthenes to Churchill. The victors choose who should be lauded as a bulwark against tyrants and who may be sneered at as the enemy of inevitable change. In those moments, she felt something deeper than the mere need to survive, a glimpse at what it might mean if she could simply learn and stop trying so hard all the time.

She found herself fantasizing about a life not only without fear but without ambition. She would read, and go to class, and live in an apartment with good light. She would feel curious instead of panicked when people mentioned artists she didn’t know, authors she’d never read. She would have a stack of books by her bedside table. She would listen to Morning Becomes Eclectic. She would get the jokes, speak the language; she would become fluent in leisure.

But the illusion couldn’t be maintained, not when there were two dead faculty members whose murders might be linked to the societies, when Darlington was trapped in a circle of protection that might give way at any time, when Halloween was less than two weeks away and they had a ritual to perform, when she might die if they failed and might lose everything if they succeeded. The terror rushed back in, that gnawing sense of failure.

The beauty of poetry and the pattern of history receded until all that was left was the dull and worrisome now.

Dawes pinged her halfway through lecture, and Alex called her on the way to her next class.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asked as soon as Dawes picked up.

“Nothing. Well, not nothing, of course. But you’ve been summoned by the new Praetor.”


“You can’t keep putting him off. Anselm never bothered to arrange a tea after … what happened at Scroll and Key, and the Praetor is getting antsy. He has office hours from 2 to 4 p.m. in LC.”

Practically next door to her dorm. Alex didn’t find the thought comforting.

“You spoke to him?” she asked. “What did he sound like?” “I don’t know. Like a professor.”

“Angry? Happy? Help me out here.”

“He didn’t sound anything really.” Dawes’s voice was cool and Alex wondered why.

“What time do you want to do this?”

“He wants to meet you, not me.” Was that the problem? The Praetor didn’t want to include Dawes?

“Wait, he’s a professor? How long has he been here?” “He’s been teaching at Yale for twenty years.”

Alex couldn’t help but laugh. “What?” Dawes demanded.

“If he’s been here that long and we’re just hearing about him now, he has to have been Lethe’s last choice.”

“Not necessarily—”

“You think people were lining up for the job? The last guy ended up dead.”

“From a heart attack.”

“Under mysterious circumstances. No one wanted the gig. So they had to tap this guy.”

“Professor Raymond Walsh-Whiteley.”

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were kidding.”

“He was something of a wunderkind. Graduated from Yale at sixteen, postgraduate work at Oxford. He’s a tenured English professor and, based on the opinion pieces he writes for The Federalist, very old-school.”

Alex thought about making an excuse, putting this off awhile longer. But what good would that do? And better to meet with the Praetor now, one-on-one, than wait for Anselm to get around to arranging a dinner where she’d have to worry about a Lethe board member scrutinizing her too.

“Okay,” she said. “I can go after lecture.”

“I’ll meet you at JE when you’re done. We can try to hammer out the rest of the Gauntlet.”


“Be polite,” Dawes insisted. “And dress nicely.”

That was really something coming from Dawes, but Alex knew all about playing the part.

Alex tried to stay focused in Electrical Engineering 101, but that was a challenge on her best days. It was offered in a cavernous lecture hall and was probably the most democratic course at Yale since everyone was only there to fulfill a requirement—including Alex, Mercy, and Lauren. They spent most of the hour quietly debating what drink they’d serve at Liquor Treat, eventually arriving at tequila shots and gummy worms.

Alex wasn’t really surprised that parties and classes and homework were continuing on in the wake of the murders. Right now, the campus believed that one man had died horribly. No one knew that Marjorie Stephen might have been killed too. There’d been no memorials or assemblies for her. Beekman’s death was shocking, grim, something to talk about over dinner and worry about if you were walking home after dark. But none of the students nodding off in their chairs around Alex had been at that crime scene or looked down into that old, startled face. They hadn’t felt the sudden rupture that came with death, and so they simply kept on living. What else was there to do? Dress up like ghosts and ghouls and dead celebrities, drown the terror of their own mortality in grain alcohol and Hawaiian Punch.

Liquor Treat was considered a kind of pregame before people headed out to the real parties, and Alex could slip out early to prepare for the ritual at Sterling. There would be no uncanny activity to worry about at the Manuscript Halloween party this year. They’d been penalized for the drugs they’d managed to lose track of the previous semester and that had been used to victimize Mercy and other girls unlucky enough to cross paths with Blake Keely. But she would still have to oversee something called a songbird ritual for them on Thursday.

Alex walked back to JE with Mercy and Lauren. She would have to skip lunch if she was going to make it to the new Praetor’s office hours. She darted into her room to change into her most respectable outfit: black jeans, a black sweater, and a white collared shirt she borrowed from Lauren.

“You look like a Quaker,” Mercy said with disapproval. “I look responsible.”

“You know what she needs?” Lauren asked. She popped into her room and returned with a dark red velvet headband.

“Better,” said Mercy.

Alex examined her prim, humorless face in the mirror. “Perfect.”



Professor Raymond Walsh-Whiteley’s office was on the third floor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, his hours taped to the heavy wooden door. She hesitated. What exactly was she in for? A lecture? A warning? An interrogation about the ritual at Scroll and Key?

She tapped lightly and heard a disinterested “Come.”

The room was small, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with overflowing bookshelves. Walsh-Whiteley was seated in front of a row of leaded-glass windows. The panes were thick and watery, as if they’d been made from heated sugar, and the gray October light had to fight its way through. A brass lamp with a green shade craned its neck over his cluttered desk.

The professor looked up from his laptop and peered over his glasses. He had a long, melancholy face, and thick white hair combed back from his forehead in what was almost a pompadour.

“Sit.” He waved at the single chair opposite him.

It was strange to know that a former Lethe deputy had been living on campus all of last year, cozied away in this cubbyhole. Why hadn’t anyone mentioned him? Were there others?

“Galaxy Stern,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I prefer to be called Alex, sir.”

“Small favors. I would have felt a fool calling someone Galaxy. Quite the whimsical name.” He said whimsical with the same disgusted spin other people reserved for fascist. “Is your mother prone to such flights?”

A little truth couldn’t hurt.

“Yes,” Alex said. “California.” She shrugged.

“Mmm,” he said with a nod, and Alex suspected that he’d long since written off the whole state, possibly the entire West Coast. “You’re an artist?”

“A painter.” Though she’d barely touched a brush or even a piece of charcoal since last semester.

“And how are you finding the start of the school year?”

Exhausting? Terrifying? Way too full of dead bodies? But people were only really talking about one subject on campus.

“This thing about Dean Beekman is pretty terrible,” she said. “A tremendous loss.”

“Did you know him?”

“He was not a man who could stand to remain unknown. But I do feel deeply for his family.” He steepled his fingers. “I’ll be blunt, Miss Stern. I am what is fondly called a dinosaur and less fondly described as a reactionary. Yale was once dedicated to the life of the mind, and while there were diversions and distractions, nothing could be as diverting or distracting as the presence of the fairer sex.”

It took Alex a long moment to process what Walsh-Whiteley was saying. “You don’t think women should have been admitted to Yale?”

“No, I do not. By all means, let there be higher education for women, but blending the sexes does neither any good. Similarly, Lethe is no place for women, at least not in the role of Virgil or Dante.”

“And Oculus?”

“Again, best not to create an atmosphere of temptation, but as the office is solely dedicated to research and caretaking, I can make an exception.”

“A kind of exalted nanny.” “Precisely.”

Now Alex knew why Dawes had sounded so grumpy.

Walsh-Whiteley plucked a speck of lint from his sleeve. “I have lived long enough to see the supposedly harmless bleating of the counterculture become the culture, to see venerable academic departments overtaken by prattling fools who would uproot hundreds of years of great literature and art for the appeasement of little minds.”

Alex considered her options. “Couldn’t agree more.” Walsh-Whiteley blinked. “Beg pardon?”

“We’re watching the death of the Western canon,” she said with what she hoped was the appropriate amount of distress. “Keats, Trollope, Shakespeare, Yeats. Did you know they have a class focusing on the lyrics of popular songs?” She had come around to loving Shakespeare and Yeats. Keats bored her. Trollope delighted her. Apparently he’d invented the postbox. But she doubted Professor Walsh-Whiteley cared much about enjoyment, and she’d also really liked a semester of studying the Velvet Underground and Tupac.

He considered her. “Elliot Sandow was one such prattler. A repellent combination of self-righteous and spineless. I want it understood that I will have no trouble beneath the Lethe roof, no hanky-panky, no nonsense.”

It was hard not to get hung up on a grown man unironically using the term hanky-panky, but Alex simply said, “Yes, sir.”

“You have been without a Virgil or any kind of real leadership for too long. I don’t know what bad habits you’ve accrued in that time, but there will be no room for them under my watch.”

“I understand.”

He leaned forward. “Do you? During Dean Sandow’s ignominious tenure, a student went missing and is most likely dead. The societies were allowed to descend into a miasma of deprivation and criminal behavior. I wrote numerous complaints to the board, and I am relieved they did not fall on deaf ears.”

She folded her hands in her lap, attempting to look small and vulnerable. “All I can say is that I’m grateful we’ll have a … uh … firm hand on the tiller.” Whatever the hell that meant. “Losing my Virgil was frightening. Destabilizing.”

Walsh-Whiteley made a low chortling noise. “I can imagine that a woman with your background would feel quite out of place here.”

“Yes,” said Alex. “It’s been a challenge. But didn’t Disraeli say, ‘There is no education like adversity’?” Thank goodness for the wisdom of dining hall tea bags.

“Did he?” said Walsh-Whiteley, and Alex wondered if she’d gone too far. “I’m no fool, Miss Stern, and I won’t be swayed by glib speech. There is no room in Lethe for glad-handers or charlatans. I will expect prompt reports on the rituals you oversee. I will also be assigning additional reading

—” Her distress must have shown because he held up a hand. “I also don’t like to be interrupted. You will comport yourself as a deputy of Lethe at all times. Should the barest whiff of controversy touch you, I will recommend your immediate expulsion from Lethe and Yale. That Michael Anselm and the board have let you stay on after your shameful performance at Scroll and Key is beyond me. I have let Mr. Anselm know this in no uncertain terms.”

“And?” Alex asked, her anger getting the best of her. The Praetor sputtered. “And what, Miss Stern?”

“What did Michael Anselm say?”

“I … haven’t been able to get hold of him. We’re both very busy.”

Alex had to tamp down a smile. Anselm wasn’t returning his calls. And Lethe had avoided tapping him for Praetor until all their other options were exhausted. No one wanted to listen to good old Professor Walsh-Whiteley. But maybe that meant there was an opportunity here.

Alex waited to make sure he’d finished, weighing possible strategies. She knew it was probably pointless to try to make Walsh-Whiteley an ally, but shouldn’t he want Daniel Arlington—a deputy of Lethe with all the proper credentials—back?

“My Virgil—”

“A tremendous loss.”

The same words he’d used to describe Dean Beekman’s murder.

Meaningless. A wave of the hand.

Alex tried again. “But if there’s a way to reach him, to bring him back


The Praetor’s brows rose in disbelief and Alex braced for another rant,

but his voice was gentle. “Dear child, the end is the end. Mors vincit omnia.

But he’s not dead. He’s sitting in the ballroom at Black Elm. Or some part of him was.

Again Alex wondered how much Walsh-Whiteley knew. “At Scroll and Key—” she ventured.

“Do not look for sympathy from me,” he said sternly. “I expect you to know your own limitations. Any inspection or ritual activity must be vetted by me first. I will not see the Lethe name further degraded because the board has seen fit to relax standards that exist for a reason.”

Inspection. That was the cover story Alex had offered Scroll and Key, and that Anselm had backed with their alumni. Alex had assumed Anselm would share all of his suspicions with the Lethe board. But maybe the board had kept them from the Praetor. After all, why rile a dog you knew loved to bark? And if the Praetor didn’t know she and Dawes were trying to break into hell, that would be one less thing to worry about.

“I understand,” she said, trying to hide her relief.

Walsh-Whiteley shook his head. His look was pitying. “It’s not your fault you were put in this position. You simply don’t have the skills or background to cope with what’s being thrown at you. You are not Daniel Arlington. You are ill-equipped to play the role of Dante, let alone Virgil. But with my supervision and some humility on your part, we’ll get through this together.”

Alex considered stabbing him with a pen. “Thank you, sir.”

Walsh-Whiteley took off his glasses, withdrew a cloth from his desk drawer, and polished the lenses slowly. His eyes darted left and Alex tracked the movement to a yellowing photograph of two young men, perched on a sailboat.

He cleared his throat. “Is it true you can see the dead?”

Alex nodded.

“Without any elixir or potion?” “I can.”

Alex had read the room as soon as she’d entered. The driftwood on the shelf beside the photo, shells and pieces of sea glass, the quote framed in a paperweight: Be secret and exult, because of all things known, that is most difficult. But she hadn’t read Walsh-Whiteley—not successfully. She’d been too nervous to see the desperation lurking behind all of that bluster.

“There’s a Gray here now,” she lied. The office was blessedly free of ghosts, probably because the Praetor was one step shy of a cadaver himself.

He started, then tried to remain composed. “Is there?”

“Yes, a man…” A gamble now. “An older man.” A frown puckered the professor’s brow. “No … he’s hard to make out. Young. And very handsome.”

“He…” Walsh-Whiteley looked around. “To the left of your chair,” said Alex.

Walsh-Whiteley stretched out his hand, as if he could reach through the Veil. The gesture was so hopeful, so vulnerable, Alex felt an acute pang of guilt. But she needed this man on her side.

“Has he said anything?” the Praetor asked. The longing in his voice had an edge, sharpened over years of loneliness. He’d loved this man. He’d lost him. Alex resisted the urge to take another look at that photo on the mantel, but she felt sure Walsh-Whiteley was one of those smiling faces, young and suntanned and sure that life would be long.

“I can see Grays, not hear them,” Alex lied again. Then added primly, “I’m not a Ouija board.”

“Of course not,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.”

Where’s your sneer now? But she knew she had to tread carefully. Her grandmother had read fortunes in the leavings of Turkish coffee, bitter, dark, and so thick it seemed to take its own slow time down your gullet.

“You’re selling people lies,” Alex’s mother had complained. A funny irony from Mira, who lived on the hope she found in crystals, energy baths, bundles of sage that promised purity, prosperity, renewal.

“I don’t sell them anything,” Estrea had said to her daughter.

That was true. Estrea Stern never charged for the fortunes she told. But people would bring over loaves of bread, tinfoil skillets of Jiffy Pop, babka, chewy strawberry candies. They would leave kissing her hands, tears in their eyes.

“They love you,” Alex had said, marveling, watching with wide eyes from the kitchen table.

“Mija, they love me until they hate me.”

Alex hadn’t understood until she’d seen the way those same people had turned from her grandmother in the street, treated her like a stranger in line at the store, the cashier’s eyes darting away, a perfunctory smile on her lips. “I’ve seen them at their lowest,” Estrea had explained. “When someone

shows you their longing, they don’t want to see you out buying cherry tomatoes. Now don’t tell your mother.”

Alex hadn’t said a word about the people who came and went at her grandmother’s apartment, because whenever her mother did find out about Estrea telling fortunes, she would spend the whole car ride home ranting. “She laughs at me because I pay to have my tarot read, and then she does this,” Mira would rage, pounding the heel of her hand against the steering wheel. “Hypocrite.”

But Alex knew why Estrea laughed at the fakes her mother cycled through in an endless wave of hope and disillusionment. Because they were liars and Estrea only told the truth. She saw the present. She saw the future. If there was nothing in the cup, she told her visitors that too.

“Read me,” Alex had begged.

“I don’t need a cup of coffee to read you, presiada,” Estrea had said. “You will endure so much. But the pain you feel?” She took Alex’s chin in her bony fingers. “You will give it back tenfold.”

Alex wasn’t sure about the math on that, but Estrea Stern had never been wrong before.

Now she studied the Praetor. He had that same hopeful look she’d seen at her grandmother’s kitchen table, the ache in him radiating like an aura. Estrea had said she could never look into a heart and lie. Alex didn’t seem to have inherited that particular trait. For the first time in a while, she thought of her father, the mystery of him, little more than a handsome face

and a smile. She looked like him—at least that was what her mother had told her. Maybe he’d been a liar too.

“The Gray seems comfortable,” she said. “He likes being here, watching you work.”

“That’s good,” Walsh-Whiteley said, his voice hoarse. “That’s … that’s good.”

“It can take time for them to share what they need to share.”

“Of course. Yes.” He slid his glasses back on, cleared his throat. “I’ll have Oculus prepare a schedule of rituals the societies are seeking approval for. We’ll go over that tomorrow evening.”

He opened his laptop and returned to whatever work he’d been doing. It was a dismissal.

Alex looked at the old man in front of her. He would cry when she left; she knew that. He would ask her about this young man again; she knew that too. He might be kinder or more just with her for a time. That had been the goal, to ingratiate herself. But as soon as he doubted her, he would turn on her. Fine. She just had to stay in his good graces until Darlington really came home. Then the golden boy of Lethe could make it right.

She was halfway back to the dorms before the Praetor’s words returned to her: There is no room in Lethe for glad-handers or charlatans. Three professors had confronted Mercy to try to keep her in the English department, and one of them had called the beloved Dean Beekman a glad-hander. An uncommon term. He was not a man who could stand to remain unknown.

Becoming Praetor meant gaining full access to Lethe’s archives and resources—including an armory full of potions and poisons. The professor had been instated as Praetor just last week, right before the murders began, and he certainly didn’t like Dean Beekman.

Motive and means, Alex considered as she unlocked the gate to JE. As for opportunity, she knew better than anyone: You had to make it for yourself.

You'll Also Like