It had to be a practical joke.
Professor Gladstone peered at his prized book collection. He’d already methodically searched every other square inch of his Harvard, Robinson’s Hall office. Thus far the only unaccounted thing he’d uncovered was a used marijuana joint in a carinated pottery bowl dating back to Stonehenge; it had been in this room for over a hundred years. The used narcotic was certainly not his. He supposed it may have been left behind by someone who cleaned this office over the past century. If he had to guess the culprit, it was probably a professor during 1960s. Horrible decade. Back then, the faculty was full of hippie stoners.
They could have gone all-out and planted a camera, but a listening device was possible. With today’s technology, stealth devices could be miniature, as fine as a fiber optic wire. He doubted they would have gone through all the trouble to get something too sophisticated. Yet, nothing looked out of order. No sudden appearance of a clock on the wall with a secret camera lens inside or a newly mounted two-way mirror.
The faculty knew better than to mess with his rare collection of books. The cracked leather binding of Ptolemy’s Cosmography winked out from the glass-encased shelf. Only two copies in private collections existed, and the book was valued at close to three quarters of a million dollars. In total, his personal rare book collection was insured at over three million dollars, something well-known across campus. So there was no way any bugs could have been planted between the book bindings; the security alarm would have been activated. No secret monitoring devices had been found.
What now? In fifteen minutes, a student of his, Ulysses Hercules Baxter, would be here. How was he to play this?
Gladstone believed Baxter’s ruse had to be a Harvard clandestine custom of which he was unaware. Some secret fraternal ritual orchestrated by the faculty elite. He wondered if every new Harvard chairman was victim to such an elaborate prank, or, perhaps it was reserved to the twisted academic minds of the History Department.
A month ago, Gilda Busby, the department chair, had been killed. She’d been researching a book in Bahrain on Western technologies’ social impact on Islam when she was crushed under the weight of a camel while the beast tried to mate with her.
Gladstone was saddened by the news and later horrified when a student spammed an e-mail prank referencing the camel and part of the foot anatomy. Sick, perverted bastards. Yet, her death left a vacancy for the chairman of the department, and Gladstone was the anointed heir-to-be.
Gladstone peered down at his desk and focused on the centerpiece of the charade: Ulysses Baxter’s thesis paper. It was a hoax, but, unlike The Hitler Diaries, the thesis was so preposterous that it offered no pretension of reality. Baxter was the perfect set-up man. He was not some fourth-generation Harvard blue blood that would have blown whatever credibility the thesis paper possessed. No, Baxter was a jokester, hardly Ivy League material. A few unqualified students always slipped through the door, especially if Daddy volunteered to—with no preconditions, of course—help finance the largest modernization update in American university history.
Baxter was almost the perfect buffoon; everyone would acknowledge him as the author who presented such rubbish as his graduate thesis. With his family wealth, the lad did not take school seriously. His work—up until now—had been unexceptional.
Indeed, his fellow professors had found the perfect conman for their joke.
Although Gladstone considered Baxter the best set-up man the faculty could find, he also noted that up until now—despite Baxter’s underwhelming grades—the student’s work had never been fraught with fiction. Baxter performed poorly because he was apathetic toward his studies, spending his free time in bars chasing girls.
Gladstone pondered. What fun is a joke if the perpetrators cannot witness the reaction?
With nothing found in his office, only one option was left: Baxter would be carrying some sort of surveillance equipment. Gladstone would observe the lad closely and take means to the thwart that ploy. Once Baxter made to adjust his equipment, the reality that it truly was a prank would be apparent.
Gladstone would be sure to angle the conversation so that it turned the tables on the faculty. The joke would be on them, and this might be more than a prank. This interview could also be viewed as a test before he assumed the role as chairman of the department.
Gladstone grinned. This meeting with Baxter is the perfect time for me to strut my stuff.
Like most history professors, Gladstone was well-versed on a range of topics, but his area of specialty—one where he had authored eleven books and had been used as a consultant for a major Hollywood movie—was the Civil War. He also happened to know quite a bit about the famous American outlaw, Jesse James. Still, anyone with an educational pedigree above a fourth-grade reading level and an IQ over sixty would spot Baxter’s revisionist history of Jesse James as a work of juvenile fiction. It was one thing to take a position on inconclusive historical matter, such as claiming that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone in the assassination of President Kennedy, or theorizing something new, such as Gavin Menzies' proposal that the Chinese were the first visitors to the New World, but it was something quite different to reinvent conclusive history.
Baxter’s work was a pure poppycock. The title of the thesis alone portended the delusions within: "Jesse James and the Secret Legend of Captain Coytus" by Ulysses Hercules Baxter
A knock came from Professor Gladstone’s office door.