The Square Root of Murder
When she's not wrestling with a cube puzzle or designing a brainteaser, SOPHIE KNOWLES, a slight, energetic 44, teaches math at Henley College, a small campus in Henley, Massachusetts.
This summer, Sophie is teaching one of her favorite class: Overcoming Math Anxiety. She loves her math majors and her advanced calculus course, but what pleases her most is her ability to quell the fears of the artists and social studies majors who need to fulfill their math requirement.
Sophie has her life under control. She's just finished her rotation as math department chair and has more time for her puzzle-making avocation and for her longtime boyfriend Bruce Granville, a medivac helicopter pilot. Bruce has enough adventures for both of them, Sophie thinks, and at six-foot-three, he's also tall enough for both of them.
Sophie's best friend, Ariana Volens, owner of a bead store, is also Sophie's mentor in bead design. The two women enjoy crafting together, with Ariana constantly urging Sophie to break out of her exact, geometric patterns.
Henley's math and science departments share a four-story building, Benjamin Franklin Hall, at the edge of campus, separated from the other buildings by the tennis courts and a coffee shop. Some say this arrangement is because no one wants to be too close when the chem labs explode, but it was a freak explosion in the kitchen at Ruby's, the campus coffee shop, that brought Bruce to land his medivac 'copter on the tennis court three years ago. Sophie can hardly play tennis anymore without remembering that first meeting. She tells him it was his handsome navy blue flight suit, and the sleek BO-105 he piloted, that she fell in love with.
Most important of all this summer, Sophie's research on differential equations is going well, thanks to the resourcefulness of her assistant, 22-year-old Rachel Wheeler. Rachel is indispensable in Franklin Hall, her duties encompassing every department—she sets up the labs for physics, biology, and chemistry students, and assists with correcting freshman and sophomore problem sets for the math department.
Once Sophie publishes her results, she'll have fulfilled the last requirement (other than the approval of Dean Jane Underwood) for tenure.
Things aren't going as well for Rachel, however, since her senior thesis adviser, chemistry professor Keith Appleton, seems to thrive on making his students' lives as difficult as possible. Dr. Appleton considers it a great achievement when the majority of his students fail his midterm. Sophie's philosophy, on the other hand, is that when most students stumble over a particular question on her quiz, there's something wrong with her question.
When Dr. Appleton fails to appear at a Friday afternoon reception in the Franklin Hall faculty lounge, no one is surprised, since he seldom attends functions where he is not the center of attention. The guest of honor this time is physics instructor Hal Bartholomew, who has just been awarded his doctorate.
But this time, Dr. Appleton is not simply being antisocial; he's dead.
Dr. Appleton's body is found behind his desk in his third floor Chemistry Department office. The cause of death is eventually determined: poisoning, from a substance kept secured in the chemical supply closet on the floor above him.
There's no end to the list of people who had a grievance with Dr. Appleton, and could be considered suspects in his murder. These include students whose GPA he ruined and faculty whose lives he did his best to make miserable.
Sophie's trusted research and teaching assistant, Rachel Wheeler, is highest on the Henley Police Department's suspect list. More than anything, Rachel wants acceptance to medical school, and Dr. Appleton had threatened to deny her a recommendation. Moreover, Rachel is one of only a handful of people who have keys to the lab cabinets where potentially deadly chemicals are stored.
But no matter how the evidence stacks up against Rachel, Sophie knows she isn't capable of murder.
Sophie goes to work to clear Rachel's name.
No one except Rachel is happy that Sophie is investigating. Bruce is afraid Sophie will be hurt in the process; Bruce's cop buddy, Virgil Mitchell, is ready to arrest her at the first sign of obstruction of the official investigation.
The academic dean, Jane Underwood, is the least happy. She's disturbed by the attention being drawn to the tragic incident and doesn't want her faculty involved in any way in the murder investigation. She gives Sophie an ultimatum: if she doesn't stop asking questions and snooping around, her tenure will be denied.
Sophie decides that justice is more important than a single professor's career advancement.
She perseveres, figuring out who killed Keith Appleton, and on the way uncovering secrets among faculty and students and their families that are anything but academic.