The Professor's Keeper

an excerpt

Chapter One

Dr. Alistair Tarrellton, M.D., Ph.D., a brilliant young scientist and professor who possessed multiple masters, doctorates, and philosophical degrees along with a certifiable genius-level IQ, shifted his weight from one side to the other while he stood in front of an exclusive group of students. "Bioinformatics is the application of computer science and information technology to the fields of biology, genetics, and medicine. Therefore, I recommend multiple master's degrees, including mathematics, before you dare to attempt a doctorate in this research area. I'm not here to teach you the basics of those other programs. If you don't understand them then you will not understand or follow what I'm about to explain when it comes to bioinformatics. I will be combining multiple disciplines at an advanced level, and I can't take the time to explain the basic information. If you feel you aren't prepared in any one or more of these programs, then you aren't ready for this doctoral program. Do not waste my time, your fellow students' time, and your money. If you feel this is applicable to your personal circumstance, I recommend that you exit this lecture hall, request an appointment with your counselor, and begin a serious discussion about the path of your future career."

Adjusting his dark wire-rimmed glasses, he watched the potential doctoral students glance at one another and back to him. Perhaps they didn't grasp the sincerity of his explanation. None of them left the classroom, to his disappointment. With a desire to reside within the laboratory and not this classroom, he wished he could cancel all classes or change them to a web-based system to avoid social interaction. Still, to preserve the funding of his programs, he needed to be here. The university made sure to add the teaching component as a permanent clause of his contract.

"Very well, if everyone is to remain here, then let's commence with our syllabus and delve into the information. Bioinformatics also deals with algorithms, databases and information systems, web technologies, artificial intelligence and soft computing, information and computation theory, software engineering, data mining, and image processing. It is ever evolving and changing. What we might study today, could be extinct by next month depending upon new analysis and reports."

While immersing himself into the details and facts of his beloved field of study, Alistair could overlook being in front of a crowd, even a small one. Still, his anxiety emerged, and with it the familiar sensation of an impending panic attack. His fingers played with the gel stress ball in one pocket of the white lab coat he wore. Part of his mind concentrated on the constant, undulating motion to hold back his anxiety. He picked up a dry-erase marker in his left hand and went to the white board.

Squeezing the ball again, listening to the students tapping out notes on their laptops, Alistair cleared his throat and went forward with the opening lecture. He hated these first few classes, filled mostly with him providing information, lengthy lectures, and the scratching of numerous notes being taken, instead of intricate lab assignments where the students could work on their own with minimal interaction with him.

"There are several major research areas within bioinformatics where you can concentrate for your doctorate program." Alistair adjusted his glasses and wrote with precise letters. "The first is sequence analysis..." He went on to explain what each of the twelve research areas involved and their potential aspects.

While he lost himself in the information, Alistair forgot about time, his students, and the classroom. He didn't stop until a couple of the students cleared their throats. Pushing his glasses up his nose, he glanced over his shoulder and saw a couple students wiggling in their chair to get free. After a peek at his watch, he noticed two hours passed and turned to face the class.

"Excuse me for forgetting the time. Class is dismissed. Please read the first three chapters of your book, Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics, and the first two chapters of Bioinformatics for Dummies before we convene again on Wednesday."

"Isn't it rather strange, Professor, to have a Dummies book as a textbook?" one student said, while he placed his things into a backpack.

"Normally, I would agree, but this book provides plain and simple information and delineates a basic plan." Alistair capped the marker and slid it into a plastic holder with the other colors. It became a distraction for him while talking, since he still found himself uncomfortable in this teaching role. "While I'm not teaching an introduction to other courses, I am giving you an introduction to bioinformatics along with this doctorate. This book gives you exactly what you need. The other book is also a good beginner, but a little more technical in nature. I found using the two of them helps the concepts come together in a more cohesive fashion. There will be specific print-outs that I will provide while we progress through the lecture and labs."

"It was interesting to see the bright yellow cover, Professor," another said. "I think it gave the bookstore people a laugh when they put it on the shelves."

"They did appreciate the change when I put it on my request list. I choose the appropriate works that can help you understand my field."

"Thank you, Professor," the first student said.

After everyone left, Alistair released his near-death grip on the stress ball. He dragged a hand through his chestnut hair, pushed it away from his face. He let out a long, unsteady breath and massaged his aching temples. Restoring semblance of control to his mind, his hands continued to tremble along with the anxiety headache, he closed the laptop filled with his notes and capped the remaining markers. Then he erased the board so it would be ready for the morning class and set everything in the right place. He slid the laptop, charger, and markers into his battered leather messenger bag. Pulling off the lab coat, he carefully folded it into a neat square, pressed every fold, and slid it inside the empty space within the bag. Then he zipped the bag closed. Walking to the far side of the room, he lifted his wool trench coat, pulled it on, and carefully buttoned it. Though he wanted to put in the precious hours of examination and testing in his lab, he decided not to aggravate his headache. He needed the medication, serenity, and peace only his home could bring, after a quick stop at the corner grocery store for dinner fixings.

Sliding the strap of his bag crosswise over his body, Alistair left the science and mathematics building. As usual, he was one of the last people to cross the darkened campus. Shoving his hands into the trench coat pockets, one hand gripped the stress ball, Alistair kept his attention focused on the sidewalk. He tried not to let it bother him how strange the differences were between him and the students when they were the same age. To keep his need for quiet and general order, he placed the students and teaching assistants in a different lab. He never had the opportunity to play, mingle, or date others his age because he didn't go to school with them.

Recently he realized he was more attracted to the masculine body than the feminine one, and he concluded that he was indeed gay. Not that his sexuality mattered. He didn't or couldn't date. If he even thought about dating, his anxiety shot sky-high, and he went into a panic attack. What guy would want a panic-stricken, skinny male with a genius IQ and zero social skills like him anyway? A complete innocent in the matters of how to flirt, kiss, or have sex, he never ventured near a porn site, movie, or magazine. He concentrated his energy on his scientific research and studies, not his sexual needs.

Leaving the campus, Alistair huddled within the coat against the chilly burst of wind. He sighed at the oddity of his life and crossed the street to the corner store sat, brightly lit against the night. Hearing the bell tinkle to alert the owner at his entrance, he glanced over and saw Old Sam Weaver look up from his book and wave.

"Hey, Professor, how are you this evening?" Old Sam said, placed a bookmark in-between the pages.

Choosing a basket from the stack by the door, Alistair shrugged a shoulder. The old man was one of the few Alistair found himself drawn to conversation. "I'm unsatisfied with my progress in the laboratory. My hours are severely shortened with the new semester even with the teaching assistants. There are certain classes they can't teach and my presence in the classroom is required. The initial class of the semester for new doctoral students began this evening. I had no one leave, even after explaining the situation and what would be required of them. No one left."

"I'm sorry. Classes will help fill your day."

"Classes are useless to me. My accomplishments are found within in the lab and not a classroom. Time spent in a there removes me from these important endeavors. I don't appreciate the loss."

"Nonsense, you get to help others love what you do, Professor."

"Not when I'm in the fundamental area of an intricate algorithm or complex sequence mapping of a new display. I don't appreciate the disturbances or interference with my precise schedule. The college understands I prefer to work alone, and yet they insist on creating more classes for me to teach. Then they assign more doctoral students and teaching assistants. I don't understand their decisions sometimes. My lab work is important and detail-orientated, far more than a lazy student who does not bother to listen to or understand a word I'm saying. It's a complete waste of my precious time and their money."

"Maybe you'll see it differently someday, Professor."

Alistair shook his head then fixed his glasses.

"I saved you a fine rotisserie chicken tonight. It's in the back case. You could mix it in a salad or with veggies and pasta or rice, depending on what you're hungry for tonight," Old Sam said. He lifted his chin and scratched his white beard.

"Appreciate the chicken and the recommendation. That will make my evening much more agreeable. I'll be a moment amongst the aisles. I only have a few items on my list for dinner tonight."

"No hurry. Take your time, Professor."

Turning, Alistair went through the aisles, chose a box of chicken broth, and a couple of different fresh vegetables. Then he went to the chicken. He stopped when he saw a pair of large masculine hands pick up his chicken.

The hands, attached to long arms covered by a dark leather jacket scattered with military patches, and a powerful chest met his gaze. He needed to lean back to see the man's broad shelf of shoulders and lean face. Adjusting his glasses up his nose to accommodate the height difference, with another dazed blink, he tilted his head back to meet the stormy gaze. His hazel-green eyes seemed boring compared to the unusual gray color.

A pair of twisted scars cut off the end of the left eyebrow and ran down to the cheekbone of the other male. The man tilted his head and smiled with lush lips under the strong blade of a nose and sharp cheekbones. Tangled curls were a mixture of browns and auburns on top of his head, and the rest was military-cut short.

Swallowing, Alistair stepped back while his fingers snuck into his pocket and squeezed the hell out of the stress ball, a quick-quick-slow constriction pattern against the cool gel before a hard, long grasp, then the pattern again. He glanced at the chicken and back to the man's face.

Move away. You can do without the stupid chicken tonight, his survival instinct shouted.

"Hello there. Did I overhear Old Sam mention this chicken belonged to you?" the giant of a male said. He held out the package.

Alistair nodded.

"Too bad. These are my favorite," the man said.

"I can do with--" Alistair started.

"Stick ‘em up, old man, and empty out the register. I want the cash now!" A kid's voice called out in a harsh tone. It interrupted what they were saying.

Letting out a squeak when the panic attack rose suddenly and sharp, Alistair swung his gaze to the corner mirrors attached to the ceiling. The reverse image showed two teens, dressed in black with bandannas covering their faces. They pointed black handguns at Old Sam. Another teen held the door open, ready for them to get the hell out.

Riveted by the sight, Alistair froze, unable to move. His fingers lost their hold on the ball.

The man shoved the chicken into Alistair's basket. With a calm and firm motion, he pushed Alistair to the floor. The movement remained gentle upon his shoulders, but it was insistent and didn't give Alistair another choice. He whispered in a quiet, commanding voice, "Stay down and keep silent. Not a word. Not a movement. Got it?"

While the panic attack took over his body, Alistair felt his eyes widen.

"Do you understand me?"

Swallowing hard, Alistair could barely nod in a silent answer. He opened his mouth to speak, but the man shook his head.

"Shh, Professor, I'll take care of Sam. It'll be all right. Not a word now," the man assured him with a wink. Then he slipped away without a sound.

Military trained. That will provide a definite advantage over the impetuous mind of a teenager with little impulse control. These rational thoughts pushed aside the fear for a brief, normal moment.

Whimpering when the panic attack again rushed over him like a wave, Alistair pulled his knees to his chest and stared at the mirrors. His fingers wiggled until they found and clutched the ball. He watched Old Sam open the register and shove money in a bag, a gun pointed in his face. Before he could take another strangled breath, the man appeared in the mirror.

With a couple of deadly, precise, and beautiful moves, he lashed out with one long leg and a huge fist at the two would-be robbers. The guns went flying before the teens crashed to the floor, knocked senseless. The third robber ran before the man reached him.

Alistair didn't move from his spot.

Old Sam tossed the man something--a roll of tape or twine--from behind the counter before he picked up the phone to dial the police. The male used the roll to tie the robbers' hands and feet together before they came to.

Somehow, the scientific part of Alistair's mind didn't shut off and noticed how the man used his right side to attack. The left side seem to drag a bit on him, and this slight hesitancy intrigued Alistair's detail-oriented brain through the panic.

"Police will be here in a few minutes to deal with them." Old Sam set down the phone and shook hands with the male. "Ahh, Rhys, my boy, I'm glad you were still here. I could have lost the entire day to these teenage hooligans."

"You know I would never let them hurt you, Sam."

"Still, I didn't expect such a swift attack. I know you returned home after--" Sam placed a hand against his head. "Oh no, the Professor! I nearly forgot he was in the store. Where is he? Professor? Are you all right? Professor?"

"He should still be protected in the back corner where I left him. Keep an eye on these two, I'll go and see to him," the male Old Sam called Rhys said.

Swallowing hard at their conversation, Alistair squeezed the stress ball in his pocket and rubbed his cheek on his knees. He didn't hear the man's approach but caught the wave of ocean scent before he appeared in his peripheral view.

"Hey now, are you all right, Professor?" The man crouched next to him. He tried to make himself appear smaller, but it was next to impossible for a six-foot-four-inch man to perform such a feat.

When the man placed the backs of his fingers against Alistair's cheek, Alistair met his stormy gaze. The panic attack melted away into a sea of comfort and serenity that only his medication used to bring. "Do not... Don't stop touching me. Please. Panic attack... You push it away and are helping."

"I'm not going anywhere."