“Doug, please. I was expecting a woman, based on your name.” The corners of his eyes crinkled up in a genuine smile; that much, at least, I could still see around his mask. A mask with the old team mascot on it, in point of fact, a cartoon slaveowning plantation owner leaning nonchalantly on a cane, eyes shaded by a massive hat. The mascot looked like he ought to be selling fried chicken, not emblazoned on NCAA merch.

“J. Terry Plummer,” I said, reaching out a gloved hand. “The Terry is for Terrence. I’m sure you can guess what the J is for and why I don’t use it.”

Doug grasped my hand and pumped it vigorously and once. “I have a cousin that does the same. L. Maddie Leslie. She’d be Leslie Leslie otherwise!” A barklike laugh, almost a cough, bubbled up.

He pointed me to a seat, which I took, sinking rapidly into the expensive fabric.

“Now, your email said that you were with the paper,” Doug said, his eyes shining above the cartoon plutocrat. “But I happen to know that you’re also a private investigator, isn’t that so?”

I responded with my own–fake–laugh, but I made sure my eyes crinkled just right. “As the most powerful man on this campus, sir, I shouldn’t be surprised to find you so well informed.”

“It’s all the alumni and the fans,” Doug said. “They’re better than the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.”

“Well, your football fan bureau of investigation is quite right; I’m a private investigator licensed to practice in Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming, and a registered member of the Mississippi Private Investigators Association. I’m doing contract work for the newspaper, and I’m sure you can imagine why.”

“Yes, I read about the editor being down with the Chinese virus,” Doug said. “And I imagine they want someone with less of a stake in local politics, am I right? A private investigator isn’t so different from a reporter. Might even be better, since there’s some professional ethics and courtesy there.”

I nodded, eyes artificially crinkled. There was no way for him to know I was po-faced behind my protective Mario mask. “I’m not surprised that you did your homework,” I said. “But I am surprised you agreed to see me.”

“During the Chinese virus, all the unpleasantness in town, and in person to boot?” Doug said. “Look, Terry, I’m going to be honest with you. I want to make two things very clear. First, I have nothing to hide. You’ll find we’re an open book here. And second, we are trying to get back to normal around here. Our mayor still insists on the masks, for now, but before long this old virus will be a dim memory. And what says back to normalcy like giving a press interview in person?”

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