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Authors: Gillian Roberts

Adam and Evil

BOOK: Adam and Evil
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Praise for Gillian Roberts and her Amanda Pepper mysteries


“A stylish, wittily observant, and highly enjoyable novel.”

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine


“Lively … Breezy … Entertaining.”

San Francisco Chronicle


“Literate, amusing, and surprising, while at the same time spinning a crack whodunit puzzle.”

Chicago Sun-Times


“A pleasurable whodunit with real motives, enough clues to allow a skillful reader of mysteries to make some intelligent guesses, and a plethora of suspects.”

Chicago Tribune


“Roberts concocts colorful and on-the-mark scenes.”

Los Angeles Times


“Tart-tongued, warmhearted Amanda’s sixth case is as engaging as her others, and here she gets to do more detection than usual.”

Kirkus Reviews


“Another funny Philly puzzler for schoolteacher Amanda Pepper.”

Publishers Weekly


“I’m not convinced that anyone offers better one-liners than those delivered by Amanda Pepper.”

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

By Gillian Roberts
Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group:


Books published by The Ballantine Publishing Group are available at quantity discounts on bulk purchases for premium, educational, fund-raising, and special sales use. For details, please call 1-800-733-3000.

This book is dedicated to all the librarians who have so enriched my life, especially these wonderful people at The Free Library of Philadelphia: William Lang, Karen Lightner, Jim O’Donnell, J. Randall Rosensteel, and Connie King of the Rare Book Department. I send my lasting gratitude for your amazing knowledge and expertise—and for your patience and graciousness in the face of my complete lack of same; and most of all, Bernard Pasqualini, inspiration and lifeline, who not only suggested that I commit (fictional) mayhem at the library, but then made it possible that I do so with his patient, perfect, personalized research assistance.


. It’s hard differentiating between a teenager with problems and one whose only problem is being a teenager. It’s nearly impossible for an English teacher to know if a sulky withdrawal is a sign of depression that requires attention, or a fit of I-want-to-die grief because the team lost a game.

I’m supposed to develop language skills, not psychoanalyze students. Besides, I play a tiny role in their life and consciousness. A pie chart of the teenage brain reveals that 54 percent of that organ is devoted to tracking the state of their hormones, 21 percent does play-by-play analyses of their mercurial moods, and 10 percent is given over to calculations: what music they desperately need, what movies they’d die if they didn’t see, and what items of clothing everybody else has but they don’t. Another 8 percent debates how to fill time when school is out; 4 percent charts who did or didn’t look at or speak to them in the manner they desired; 2 percent critiques the personal lives and wardrobes of their peers and anyone in
Entertainment Weekly
magazine. The remaining 1 percent of attention is divided among whatever academic subjects they like.

These proportions fluctuate under the pressures of momentous life events, such as attending a prom, being admitted to college, or getting a zit. But by and large, this is the adolescent brain, and there is precious little place in it for either me or my course of study. I stand outside, arms waving like semaphores, trying to wedge my message into whatever space is
left in there for rent. They hear nothing, and see only a rapidly aging pest with style-challenged hair (too long, too brown), boring clothing, a pathetic (I gather) sense of humor, and a love life that annoys them because they don’t understand the status quo. Neither do I, but I can live with that.

Working under those conditions gets old, and it doesn’t allow much time or scope for meditations on the class population’s mental health. That’s how it always has been.

Until now, when it’s gotten worse. Kids today aren’t what they used to be, which was predictably, but nonlethally, weird. Just as we’d relaxed, adjusted, listened to experts’ explanations, and accepted teenagers’ peculiarities, they upped the ante. Headlines erupted with stories about teens who expressed their moodiness by blowing away their classmates, teachers, and whoever else peeved them.

Lately I’ve found myself thinking about their teachers. Sympathizing with them. Wishing I could have talked to them—before their students killed them. Wondering if I’m destined to be one of them.

Reflecting on those news stories in a school full of adjustment problems must be like living on an earthquake fault. You know the danger’s there, but if you think about it too much, you’ll go crazy, which is just as fearful a prospect. All the same, if you’re sane, you note seismic activity and stay aware of how extreme classroom tremors become.

Adam Evans registered a 10 on my Richter scale. I hoped my machinery—not his—was malfunctioning, but I didn’t think so.

Because of him, I feared that I’d overdosed on teenagers in general. But whether or not I had, Adam Evans was a puzzle I couldn’t solve, and he’d been a worry the entire academic year. I never felt sure of myself when it came to him. Never could even determine to my satisfaction whether our problems were his or mine.

Now, eight months after Adam entered my class for his senior year, I was still in the dark. All I knew for certain was that he was a royal pain. Philly Prep runs a high percentage of royal—and commoner—pains. They are, in fact, our specialty, inasmuch as we appeal to those (sufficiently affluent) youngsters who have a difficult time in larger, more standardized
schools. Our mandate is to ignite a spark in the insufficiently fueled.

This was what I was trying to explain to my near and dear ones on a Sunday afternoon in late April. My sister, Beth, her husband, Sam, and their two children were visiting en route to a party nearby. This was in no way a typical experience. Beth and Sam were the ultimate suburbanites. Sam rode the Paoli Local into the city each day to his law firm, but then he hurried back out to Gladwynne. And Beth behaved as if coming to the city were the equivalent of going on safari without a guide. So this visit was an event. We drank coffee and caught up on our lives.

I talked about teaching, my growing ambivalence. I talked about Adam. I wanted sympathy, I wanted compassion. Often, lately, I wanted out. “I’m afraid for him,” I said. “He doesn’t seem in complete control. The other day, I was sure he was going to hit someone. I had to physically restrain him. And then he freaked. Acted as if touching him was a crime.” Beth looked aghast—her suspicions about people who lived inside the city limits were proving true. I shook my head. “I’m making it sound worse than it was. He stopped as soon as I touched his arm. He hates being touched. It’s part of what’s abnormal about him. Anyway, I didn’t have to wrestle him down, he didn’t hurt the other kid, but he did overreact to both that other boy and then to me. He’s off center. I can’t explain it, but I worry about what he might do to somebody else—and I worry about what he might do to himself.”

From atop a ladder, C.K. Mackenzie grunted, acknowledging that he was listening. Of course, he’d heard this before, so his real attention was on a painting he was hanging. My brother-in-law partnered in this endeavor, standing nearby, reading a J. Crew catalogue, ready to hand up a tool if needed. Male bonding. They didn’t look at each other or communicate. They were both very happy.

I pulled Adam’s paper out of the pile on the oak table. There were always papers needing marking. That, too, grew old. “Tell me this isn’t peculiar. Quote: ‘I will learn to harmonize with the song of my follicles.’ End quote.”

“You’ll do what?” Mackenzie swiveled and endangered his perch. Sam dropped the J. Crew catalogue and rushed to the rescue, grabbing the sides of the ladder, steadying it. The
women made sounds of alarm, the men made sounds indicating they could take care of anything.

“Not me. Adam.” I repeated the sentence. Mackenzie shook his head, as well he might. “I’ve asked for a conference with his parents,” I said. “There are too many strange things like this about him lately. He should be evaluated, get some help before … I don’t know what. He’s off somewhere, can’t concentrate, reacts bizarrely with inappropriate laughs or no emotion at all …” My words dribbled off because I had so little confidence in my own opinion. I had a strong sense that Adam was having mental and emotional problems, but he’d done reasonably well on his SAT exams, and that piece was such a bad fit with the rest of the puzzle, it worried me, made me think perhaps I was being too harsh on the boy.

“It must be difficult trying to teach writing,” Sam said in his calm, ultrasane manner.

“It’s impossible.” Writing logically requires thinking logically—and how can you teach that? But—speaking of logical thinking—how can you not try to? “So what’s your take? Is that follicle thing as weird a concluding thought as I think it is?”

“It’s, um, interesting. Really. I don’t know about poetry, but I kind of liked it,” Beth said.

“Imaginative,” Sam said.

“Vivid,” Mackenzie said. “Singing follicles would sound way better than a Walkman.”

The children, in bright plastic smocks I’d surprised them with, continued playing with modeling clay, also an Aunt Mandy treat. They did not participate in the Adam Evans follicle debate.

Another reason to love being an aunt. I can be generous for very little outlay, endearing in short spurts, and incommunicado the rest of the time. And they don’t leave me with papers to grade.

“Really?” I asked. “Interesting? Imaginative? Vivid? That’s what comes to mind?” Maybe Adam was taking a creative leap, in which case, even if I personally felt he fell flat, I should encourage him.

My sister glanced at her watch. “Let’s clean up,” she said. “The party’s already begun.”

“Why don’t you go ahead?” Sam suggested. “The kids and I will pick you up in an hour or so. I’ll stay and help …”

Neither he nor Beth knows what to call my significant other. I call him C.K., but they’re taken aback by his remaining a set of initials. “Call him Chico,” I said.

“Wrong,” Mackenzie said.

“I meant Czeslaw. I always mix those two up.”

Beth meanwhile aimed peevish looks at her husband, who ignored them. She switched her attention to me. Earlier she’d tried to sell me on this party giver, one Emily Buttonwood, a soon-to-be-divorced, newly relocated-to-center-city friend of hers. She’d been adamant about how we just had to meet and become new best friends. I’d redirected the conversation to Adam, hoping it would convey an inkling of why my life was sufficiently congested and chaotic without becoming a city guide to one more bewildered former suburbanite. I’d done it twice so far for Beth, with time-consuming, dismal results.

“Reconsider, Mandy, and come with me,” Beth said. “You’d just love each other. You have so much in common—she’s a book lover, like you. In fact, she’s so down on people, books are about all she loves these days—with a few exceptions. She needs people like you. Single, interesting people.”

Flattering, but no cigar. A depressed, bitter, people-hating new friend. Precisely what I needed to round out my life. “I’d love to, of course,” I lied. “But I have these papers to finish, a lesson to prepare, and …”

Beth looked downcast. Then she brightened. “I nearly forgot. Emmy would be perfect for your women’s book group. I told her about it, and she’s really looking forward to it. Will you give her a call? Or should I give her your number?”

“They just voted to close membership. It was getting too large and unwieldy. No time for everybody to speak up.” All true, but it nonetheless left me with the sense I’d failed Emmy Buttonwood in her hour of need, without ever having met her. Somehow I now owed her. I wasn’t sure how my sister had so effortlessly instilled guilt about negligence to a stranger, but she had the gift. She has inherited my mother’s tenacious nagging skills. Both of them should have been CEOs of major corporations. Instead they apply their formidable powers to those who need to be brought into line: preschoolers and me.

I wasn’t eager to join forces with another of Beth’s displaced friends. Not with anyone, in fact. I was already drowning in too-muchness, and my current fantasies were of silence and solitude. I wanted a Georgia O’Keeffe life, as long as it didn’t require artistic talent. Few possessions and fewer visitors to my plain white space. No teenagers. No sisters with dull, sad, and needy friends.

“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ll ask the group next time we meet.” They’d be annoyed with me—they’d settled the issue at the last meeting. I could only hope Beth would quickly forget about her relocated friend. Out of sight and all that.

“What do you think of our expanded view?” Mackenzie asked. The wall now appeared to have a barn window, through which we saw a vista of fields and grazing cows, the latter suspended a few feet above the painted pasture. We city dwellers living several stories above street level had found the floating bovines funny. I, for one, was in great need of funny.

Also, the painting filled a whole lot of wall. Judged by price per square inch, it had been a bargain, as my mother would say were she not safely several states due south, in Florida.

“I think it’s straight,” Sam said. I wasn’t as sure.

Beth fussed with her children. “You realize you’re going to upset that boy’s parents,” she said to me.

“Adam’s? About the conference?”

“I’d be. And if it’s true, wouldn’t they be the first to notice?”

At which point silent Sam surprised me by voicing an unsolicited opinion. “Be careful about your actions,” he said. “It’s hardly what a parent wants to hear, and given the fact that you have no background in psychology, no credentials in that area …”

“I’d like them to have him evaluated. To get him help if he needs it. It isn’t as if I’m accusing them of something or libeling them.”

“His parents might not see it the same way, is all I’m saying. Think twice.”

We were all expected to listen to Sam’s advice, which was always wise and always conservative, and for which he charged others big bucks, but he was annoying me. What had
happened to the concept of being a decent human being? Love thy neighbor. Good Samaritanism.

“When should people intervene?” I asked. “At what point should somebody stick her neck out and try to help? Shouldn’t we try to prevent things? Or should we wait for a TV crew to arrive so we can say, ‘I noticed he was behaving oddly, but …’ I’m mostly afraid for Adam. Do you know the statistics on teenage suicide?”

“Mandy!” Beth said, with a fearful glance at her children. “Sam, I think we should all go to Emily’s.”

I got the sense that Sam most definitely did not agree, but after hosing down the kids, many farewells, and a further warning from Sam about intervening in a child’s personal life, they went off to their party.

Even with the ladder put away, Mackenzie fretted about his handiwork. “Not sure it’s straight,” he said. I pointed out that we lived in the oldest part of the city. In a former factory. The floors weren’t straight and neither were the walls, and there probably wasn’t a ninety-degree angle to be had, so how could one tell about a painting in the middle of a long, un-straight wall?

“The appearance of straightness, then,” he said.

Kin to the appearance of mental illness. “I don’t care what Sam said,” I told Mackenzie. “If I don’t put out an alert about the boy, who will?” I was convincing myself because if my sister and brother-in-law were correct, I was about to kick up a lot of hard feelings, and in truth, I still couldn’t decide if Adam’s essay contained brilliant imagery beyond my puny comprehension, or lunacy. Or whether I’d become such a grumpy, burned-out case that I was looking for trouble, scapegoating Adam Evans.

“Tell me about the kid.” Mackenzie stared at the wall, tilting his head to the left, obviously still deliberating the painting’s straightness or lack thereof.

And there you had the problem. I shouldn’t have needed to tell him about Adam. I already had. Lots. He didn’t listen. He divvied up his attention and deeded me almost as little conscious brain space as my students did. Was he listening now as he squinted and realigned himself and paced in front of the wall? Maybe my tales were too thin a gruel for Mackenzie’s
daily diet. Compared to a homicide detective’s, my deviants from the norm must seem amusements.

BOOK: Adam and Evil
9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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