An Unsilent Night – a Portia Andrade Mystery

Ain’t no such things as ghosts. There are moments that are seared into the fabric of Time. And there are people who can still see those moments. I am one of those people. Your Aunt Tillie is one of those people. Portia, baby, you are one those people. Ain’t ghosts you seeing, honey. Just leftover moments.
Grandaunt Margaret Dreaux to a young Portia Andrade

Portia Andrade raced across the parking lot towards Dunwoody Hall. The sharp wind stung her legs as she ran. Her friends from up North often joked that she knew nothing about being cold. However, the icy wind blowing off the Mississippi and wrapping the nights in a frozen blanket proved that New Orleanians also knew about coldness.

Her toes had started to tingle in the high heels but she didn’t slow her speed and powered up the steep steps to the main entrance of Dreaux College’s administrative building. A shadow moved across the stained glass of the front doors. Portia smiled. He was waiting. Naeem Mounier opened one of the massive doors and waved her in.

She smiled and fell into his arms. “You are late.”, he said as he kissed her forehead quickly. Professor Naeem Mounier hated public shows of affection and over the last year of their relationship Portia had hugged and kissed him in public as often as possible. He wriggled out her arms, feigning impatience. “Why do you do that?”

“Because it makes you crazy”, she said slipping out of her coat and handing it to him. Portia glided across the marble foyer to the entrance of the faculty Christmas party. The staff of the Andrade House had donated the decorations and students from the college’s Hospitality and Tourism program had turned the expansive lobby into the picture of a cozy Victorian holiday dinner. Settees and sofas and wingback chairs were set up to resemble a drawing room and an actual fire crackled in the ancient fireplace. She hoped that everyone noticed. It had taken weeks for the fireplace to pass the fire inspection.

Portia and Naeem were stopped at the steps leading into the party by a photographer, most likely an art student. “Okay, guys.” the young man smiled holding up his camera.

Naeem rolled his eyes and smiled uncomfortably. Portia pointed up until Naeem saw the mistletoe. He lowered his head over hers so that her face was hidden beneath his curls and whispered in her ear, “I’ll kiss you later.” Portia giggled.

She and Naeem walked to the bar that was stationed behind the receptionists’ area. He ordered a glass of wine for her and a soda for himself. They clinked glasses and said, “Cheers” in unison. Portia scanned the room. She didn’t seem to know anyone. Her family had always been involved with the college first begun by her 3rd great-grandfather as a teaching school with the sole purpose to educate teachers for the newly freed slaves after Emancipation.

Dreaux College was much different now. Today the campus boasted fourteen buildings not including Dunwoody Hall and five dormitories teaching over five thousand undergraduate students within the Art, Journalism, Music and Hospitality and Tourism departments. Her own involvement with the college had waned over the years as she embarked on the opening of the Andrade House Hotel. Her only real connection to the college was that she was dating Naeem, visiting professor in the Journalism Department.

“There’s Harry”. Naeem guided her through the party goers to a set of four wingback chairs near the fireplace. “May we join you?”, he asked the older of the two men.

“Of course”, said Harrison Taylor, Dean of the Journalism department. Portia was interested to meet the man who held Naeem’s fate in his hands. Naeem’s visiting status would expire in a year. Dean Taylor had the power to recommend to the board that his position be extended for another two years.

Portia had reminded Naeem that her Aunt Tillie was still a board member. All she had to do was ask and he would get the extension. Naeem has asked her not to do this. Though she had acquiesced for his benefit, Portia had made a decision. If Naeem’s request wasn’t approved in the next month, she would go to Aunt Tillie anyway. Naeem would have two years to get over being mad at her.

After exchanging pleasantries, she sat opposite Dean Taylor. He was a thin pinched face man. Dean Taylor introduced the other man as his nephew, Damion Taylor from New York. The young man shared his uncle’s dark brown skin and pinched features, but Damion was very handsome. He was aware of this fact as well. The young man leaned back comfortably in the wingback chair and swirled a glass red wine around.

His uncle mentioned rather rudely that Damion was a victim of the sad state of educational opportunities available for inner city youth and was now on the right track after losing his brother. She and Naeem offered their condolences and Damion simply said, “That’s behind us now Unc. We straight.”

Dean Taylor and Naeem talked incessantly about politics. Portia crossed her legs restlessly and lifted her gaze to find that Damion was staring. He winked at her.

She looked toward Naeem but he was arguing his point. He was quite agitated about something and sat his soda down awkwardly on the table. Luckily, Damion was able to catch the glass before it hit the floor. “Good hands.” Damion crooned still looking at her.

Naeem hadn’t noticed anything and Portia excused herself from the conversation and wandered out onto the back balcony. “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” followed her into the night. She swayed back and forth with the music and lit up a cigarette. “You got another one, mami?” Portia turned quickly to see Damion.

“Um,” she took an uncomfortable step backward toward the railing and opened her purse. He stepped closer to her, much closer than was needed.

Naeem’s voice sounded from behind him, “Here you are.” He held a cigarette out to Damion.

Damion seemed startled by his voice and spilled the red wine down his shirt. “Oh, maybe I’ve had enough. Thanks though. I better get cleaned up.” He excused himself and retreated inside.

Naeem’s eyes followed Damion back into the room. He muttered and stuffed her cigarettes back into his pocket. “Add another reason you should not smoke. It is the way young men get you alone. I’m an old professor, I can’t be expected to …this mere expression of bravado is exhausting.” Portia laughed and his eyes twinkled. He tossed her cigarette aside and kissed her.

The crowd inside began clapping as the soulful voices of a choir began singing. Portia grabbed Naeem’s hand and led him inside. Young men dressed in black tuxedos with red piping and red ties stood on the interior steps singing, “Where shall I Send Thee?” The bass voices boomed throughout the lobby. The entire room was clapping and singing along. Naeem wrapped his arms around her. It must truly be the Christmas Spirit.

Suddenly, the room swirled. The dark red and green colors undulated into blackness. White snow seemed to fall in front of her eyes and someone fell with a thump. A spreading pool of red gave way to the ties of the choir. Portia fell back into Naeem’s arms.

“Are you okay?” he asked. Naeem hadn’t waited for an answer and instead led her through the swaying crowd to the chair by the fire. Portia fell backwards onto the hard back of the seat.

“There was a pillow here.” Naeem ignored her comment and kneeled before her.

“Did you see something?”

“Maybe.” She was shaken by the vision but not concerned. Her great aunt had often said that the worst part about the gift was that you didn’t know if you saw something that occurred years ago or moments before.

“We should go. I’m not getting anywhere with Harry anyway.” Naeem maneuvered them around the perimeter of the room to the steps behind the choir. “I’ll get your coat.” He disappeared down the hall to the makeshift coat room.

Portia noticed that Damion was leaning against a pillar behind the choir. A glass of a dark liquid in his hand. “You lost your bodyguard?” he winked at her again. Even with the stained shirt, he exuded confidence. Portia didn’t answer; she looked past him down the hallway. The metal from a small portable warming drawer glinted from behind him. It should have been positioned behind the bar. She gasped and looked back to Damion. He held her gaze. What was the trouble to which Uncle Harrison had alluded? Why hadn’t Uncle Harrison saved his brother as well?

Thankfully, Naeem rushed down the hall with her coat. “Have you seen your Uncle?” he directed his attention to Damion.

“No”, Damion answered without looking at them. He stepped down to the party.

Naeem and Portia hurried out of the building across the parking lot to her car. Portia got into the passenger seat while Naeem sat behind the steering wheel. He adjusted his seat and wondered aloud where Harry could have gone. “He’s dead.” Portia blurted out. She then told him in a flurry of disjointed sentences that Damion had spilled red wine on his shirt but had caught a falling glass, that he was drinking liquor but had been drinking red wine. That she had seen snow falling but it was the feathers from a missing pillow. That a warming tray was on the wrong side of the entrance and that was the perfect spot to hide a pillow with a bullet hole in it. Portia waited breathlessly for Naeem to look at her as if she was insane. Instead, he pulled out his phone and punched a key.

“Harry doesn’t answer.” A lump rose in her throat. Naeem punched the keys again. “Yes, this is Professor Mounier. I’m a little worried about Dean Taylor. It’s just that I haven’t seen him in a few hours. We were attending the faculty party and his car is still in the parking lot. Can you send someone over to walk around the building perhaps?”

Portia looked over at him. “Should we look around?”

“Of course not.”

“What if Damion leaves?”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t.” The blue flashing lights of campus security appeared at the front of the building. Two security patrolmen stepped out with their flashlights. “Stay here.” Naeem got out of the car and walked towards them. Portia watched the three men walk around and stop not far from the entrance.

They had found someone. Naeem walked slowly back to the car. He slumped into the driver’s seat. “He’s dead.”

Yes, Portia knew that Harrison was dead and that Damion had killed him.

“What do we do now?”

“We wait. When the police come. We tell them that we were worried when we saw Harrison’s car. “

“What about the other things? “

“Don’t say anything. He will be caught without any more help.” Naeem held Portia in his arms and kissed her forehead. “I promise.”

The bright white lights of the trees surrounding Dunwoody twinkled beautifully against the night sky. A rich baritone rang out the first verse of “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. Other voices joined in the chorus. The still night was filled with the beautiful melody. In the distance, the police sirens were starting to sound.

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