Authors: Gillian Roberts
I amused myself with thoughts that the doc had given away
the rights to the vaccine and had been forced to repair Emily’s gutters to make a living.
Which was the point when I realized what a waste of time engaged me. No sleep, and stupid thoughts. I pulled a stickum off and carried it into the kitchen. “Does anything on here make any sense to you?” I asked my sister. The paper read
Bauman/Sabin: AL: CDPP—17K, EAPMS95K—PMS?
—medications for it? I wondered—
, and more of the same.
She studied the paper and shook her head. “Sabin,” she finally said. “He developed the oral polio vaccine for Aunt Lydia, remember?”
“Thanks a lot.” Emily Buttonwood, with no sense of what was important and what was not, had been a self-stick packrat. I put the notebook back into the drawer.
This outing was my dry run for my ninth graders’ garbology assignment, reconstructing Emmy from her pitiable leavings. But even though I hadn’t finished, I’d already collected more for my students to work with than Emily’s actual life had provided Beth and me.
Luckily, because I was fading fast, Emily turned out to be just as clichéd as I would have been. The letters were in her dresser, between slips and stockings, and tied with a blue ribbon. She’d read a whole lot of nineteenth-century novels. Too many, perhaps. “Hunt’s over,” I called out. “They’re here.”
I handed the packet to my sister. She eyed them first, and then me. “What if they’re something else altogether? What if they’re from her dad before he died? I feel as if I’m violating her trust, but if she’d explained herself, I wouldn’t have to … I need to read at least one, make sure I’m not burning something Gage would want.”
She sat down on the edge of the bed, undid the ribbon, and opened the top envelope. It had no return address. That was enough for me to believe they were from the ex-lover. But I couldn’t have burned anything without checking, either.
Neither of us was motivated by anything as base as unwholesome curiosity, you understand.
“Oh, jeez,” Beth said.” She had them in reverse order. This is the end. The last one. It’s like a legal document. So cold!“She cleared her throat and read.” ‘Emmy.’ Just that, no salutation. Afraid to even say ‘Dear’? ‘Emmy, this is the only
possible scenario. Mistakes were made on both our parts, but it is time to resume our lives and places and minimize the harm we hold the potential to inflict.’ That’s it. Not even what I’d call a kiss-off. And only an initial.
.” She said the letter scornfully, almost spitting it out.
Living as I did with a man with no apparent first or middle name, I couldn’t fault the letter writer for signing off with an initial. But I could on all the rest of his chilly, cut-the-ties-and-cut-out tone. “Know who P. is?” I asked.
Beth shrugged. “It won’t help anybody to say it. His wife’s a good woman who never publicly acknowledges what went on.”
“But what if—”
Beth shook her head. “He didn’t kill Emmy.”
“How do you—”
She rifled through the packet to the one at the bottom. “Look here, he was writing to her a year and a half earlier. This wasn’t a one-night thing, and even this early one is careful and chilly.” She skimmed the rest of the letter, then checked the envelopes, all of which had been typed in the same no-return-address fashion. “I’m burning them,” she said. “How he attracted two such good women as his wife and Emmy, I will never know.”
“He’s obviously heartless. Why are you so sure he couldn’t have—”
“Because in truth he did have a heart, although not the way you mean. He had the one that pumps the blood around, and it failed him,” Beth said. “He reconciled with his wife—they’d never separated or anything—and had a fatal heart attack three months later. Is being dead enough of an alibi?”
I nodded, sad on too many counts to list, but mostly on behalf of Emmy, who wanted to keep letters from a man as wooden and careful as that one sounded. Sad to have spent so long with him, tragic to have lost custody of her child because of that involvement. “It is something of a relief, though,” I said. “I was worried that old love letters could be criminal evidence. The police would want to know about passions that might have led to murder. Actually, even if he were still alive, I guess I could imagine her killing him for writing such constipated claptrap. But not vice versa.”
“I’m burning them here. Now.”
“The police will notice that the fireplace has been used
Beth’s face was set and solemn. “So let them.”
I thought she was being foolish, and I thought I’d be much better off sleeping before I faced another day, but I have learned not to argue with that jawline.
She carried the small packet into the living room. “Five minutes, then it’s done. I’ve kept my promise.” She opened the glass door of the fireplace and bent to turn on the gas flame. “The logs are fake—I hope this won’t smoke up the place.” It didn’t. She put the letters into the flames, one at a time, and they flared and turned to carbon while she watched, stoking the pile now and then.
As she bent over, a heart she wore on a silver chain dangled from her neck, and the pose clicked on my memory. “I did recognize her,” I said. “She was in the library. I saw her.”
“What?” Beth asked, half turning. “What’s that?”
“She was wearing a big silk scarf over one shoulder, bending over an exhibit case, near the cabinet with the cuneiform tablets. Adam scared her—he was walking toward her. When she saw him, she straightened up and left. Went somewhere else. But first I saw her necklace—” I lifted the photo from off the mantel. “This necklace, a long gold chain with black stones. It had been hanging the way yours just did, hitting the glass case.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Beth carefully placed the last letter in the fireplace. “Or who. Or is it whom?”
I watched the last letter’s corner catch and glow. “Helena. Emmy’s sister. The one in that picture. Helena was in the library today. In the department where her sister works. Her sister was killed right outside of it.”
“Oh, Mandy.” Beth’s voice was rich with sympathy and disbelief. “I understand that you’re twitchy, having been there and all. But first it was Ray you saw, now it’s … Helena’s never read a book, as far as I can tell. Coming to see where her sister worked doesn’t sound at all like her, so why would she be there? Why on earth?”
“I have no idea.” That wasn’t completely true. I did have an idea. The idea that an oversized scarf could be used to strangle somebody.
WALKED INTO THE LOFT AND HIT THE WALL
, that is, although had there been a wall nearby, I’d have hit it headfirst. I had no more juice left in my body or brain or spirit or whatever else makes up a person. I headed toward the bed like a drowning victim spotting a distant atoll. I didn’t bother to check for messages, because Mackenzie wouldn’t have phoned this late. He might have e-mailed me, but in that case the message would say he wasn’t here and didn’t know when he would be, and I already knew that. I couldn’t see the point of detouring to the computer when the bed was just over the mountain, waiting. And if my mother had called, it would be to say either that she’d changed her mind and indeed, I should immediately marry. Or that she hadn’t changed her mind, and what was I doing about the rest of my life? I couldn’t consider touching either one.
Getting into bed is too polite a term for what I did. Think instead of a tree with auburn hair. Imagine that final whack of the axe—and goodbye tree as it topples straight down. Two half ideas flew past my mental screen while I descended, fully clothed. One was to set the alarm clock, and the second was to find out how I could “accidentally” be in the same place as Helena Spurry of the scarves and chains. And then, not even an idea as eyes closed, more an echo inside my skull. The sound of a gravelly voice saying “bitch.” Saying it to Emily Fisher Buttonwood this morning. And then all the script said was
fade to black.
TOLD MYSELF SHORTLY AFTER DAWN
and everything out loud, although Mackenzie was still away fighting crime. Talking to myself is a habit I like to pretend doesn’t exist. It smacks too closely of my future as a bag lady. But making noise gave the illusion of company. Maybe that’s why bag ladies do it, too.
“We are starting this day with a positive attitude,” I told me. Instead of thinking about being jobless, out in the cold without an income or professional reputation, I’d make that damned glass be half full. I was about to have thrust upon me the chance to expand my horizons, and if I added my parents’ offer, then this was about the luckiest series of events that could happen to a gal.
If I’d had enough sleep, if I hadn’t been obliged to live through the previous two days, I wouldn’t have sunk into smarm. But that was all I had left, so I tried to look toward the gorgeous—metaphorical again—sunrise and consider what this lucky person was going to choose to be, given that I had the option of any job in the universe.
I felt so lousy now, so besieged and put upon. I wanted something that put me more in control of my destiny, but the only job that met my requirements was that of absolute monarch of a docile but wealthy country. I wondered how you applied for that and what master’s program prepared you.
I poured coffee and took deep breaths, readying myself for Havermeyer’s gobbledygook. Would he, when he reached the you’re-fired part, say it clearly? If not, if he hid the news in a thicket of jargon, I’d pretend I didn’t understand. Only fair, because for a long time I’d been pretending I did understand.
The phone rang. “Signin’ in,” Mackenzie said. “You din’ expect me last night, did you?”
The note I’d left was still on the oak table. “Of course not,” I said as I ripped it up. “I knew where you were—well, not where, but why. And by the way, where
you? In the case, that is.”
“Like I’d tell you of all people.” He was drawling and slurring and being charming. The sleepy smile in his voice made me melt on a cellular level, but I wasn’t going to cave in to this. He’d turned it on for me. I knew he used his roots— pulled sounds out of the primeval mush and covered his messages with them—to con Yankees, make them underrate him.
But now it was obvious that the troops to be conquered and conned included me, and the knowledge rankled.
Rankling grew old fast. I reconsidered. Charming and conning included me when he thought I was involved in a case and might impede his work. But I wasn’t going to let him know I understood. “Why not?” I asked briskly. “Afraid I’ll spill my guts to my gang? E-mail my chapter of
“Can’t fool you,” he said. “Not for one single minute, so here goes. No apparent motive. Nobody saw a thing. The kid’s still missin’, though his parents say he checked in, then left again. They say he’s not runnin’ from the law, and they’re not hidin’ him. I take it to mean they’ve either abandoned him to his own devices or they’re lyin’.”
on the lam
the scientific term for what he is?”
“Oh, but you’re good at this. An’ you? Enjoy a quiet night with the cat?”
“Mmmrph. Sorry—my coffee’s too hot!” I said. I hate lying to him, but I don’t mind evading the truth.
“Hope you realize your suspicions were prob’ly accurate. That boy of yours—”
“What I hope is that my stupid outburst didn’t push you so hard in that direction that you aren’t looking anywhere else.”
“She was Beth’s friend—the one with the housewarming party Sunday. The one Beth wanted me to get into my book group, except my group was full and—” I don’t know how somebody can convey exasperation over the phone without making a sound, not even a detectable heavy breath, but Mackenzie did. “Beth’s friend,” I repeated lamely. “So I know stuff now. Like she was going through a really mean divorce— child custody fight and all. She had an affair, and that became his leverage. And her sister—” I stopped myself. How was I going to say that Emily Buttonwood’s sister had been in the library just before Emily was strangled, without having ever—legitimately—met or seen said sister? Did I want to risk Mackenzie’s wrath or at least extreme disapproval by mentioning Beth and my expedition to the dead woman’s condo?
“What about her sister?”
“She, uh—” What to say about this woman I theoretically didn’t know about? “She, ah, they didn’t get along.”
He was silent for a long moment, either despairing of my mind or x-raying what I’d said in search of a modicum of meaning. “Lots of sisters don’ get along,” he finally said. “You mean more than that?”
My turn to be silent. What else was there to say? We were so out of sync, we could have lived in different states. I felt in danger—of what, I didn’t want to think—and the silence intensified it. I wanted to shout into the phone, to say: Come home now! Let’s stop this sparring, get a routine, commit to it, to us, to anything. Let’s make being together one of the things I’m doing the rest of my life.
I wanted bedrock. I wanted him, but not this circling existence. I didn’t want him forever elsewhere and otherwise preoccupied when I was most confused and his being elsewhere only added to my confusion.
“Gotta run,” I said. I didn’t want to say stupid things like that when so much more was on my mind. “I’m about to be fired for my little session with the Evanses”—not that he’d understand what I was saying. We still hadn’t had time to discuss it. And would he listen, anyway? “Don’t want to be late for that, do I?”
“Don’ let them fire you unless you’re tired of that job anyway,” he said. “Not even then. Exit on your own terms. Whenever you want. You acted from conscience, tried to protect a kid, be a Good Samaritan. That’s noways wrong. Stick up for yourself. Hire a lawyer if you have to. You’re in the right.”
He’d been listening. He’d heard things I hadn’t even said. He’d thought about it. He understood. He was speaking directly. He was helping me be who I wanted to be.
I hate it when that happens. Hate it when I decide I don’t need him because of his failings and he proves me a liar and does the right thing.
HERE WAS NO ESCAPING
HE NOTE WAS IN MY
mailbox. Helga the Office Witch watched with malicious satisfaction as I retrieved and read it. In fact, she made sure I was aware of her watching me. She didn’t like a single faculty member: We wanted too much, like paper, markers, the copy machine, roll sheets, and sticky tape, and we interrupted her day with questions. In short, we necessitated her actually
doing her job. So why was that woman gloating? Did she think she’d like my replacement any more than she liked me?
, it said on a sheet ripped from a pad headed by
FROM THE DESK OF MAURICE HAVERMEYER, PH.D
the opportunity of discussing certain urgent matters with you at your earliest convenience, such as before classes begin. The office aide can cover your homeroom and roll-taking.
Extremely ominous. Although the note could be cut and tightened (e.g.,
Miss Pepper, I’m pissed, you’re fired, goodbye)
, it was, for Maurice Havermeyer, the essence of brevity and directness, which suggested a seriously perturbed headmaster.
And he was. “Anyone with your seniority at this position and comprehension of the unique requirements of this institution surely fathoms that establishments such as this, not underwritten by government or long-standing trusts, at the mercy of mercurial marketplaces and fluctuating economics, must have the support and confidence of its patrons.”
You know this school needs money. Why are you such a jerk as to queer it with a big donor?
“And the irony at this particular juncture, when the school is enjoying a surge in individual and collective achievement and our student body is getting its just due, the recognition of academic progress as shown by increasingly prestigious college acceptances. Our image has been considerably enhanced of late, and our endowment fund’s prospects have never been brighter.”
Was he happy or upset? Yes, more of our seniors had been accepted to good colleges. The staff, myself included, took that as a sign of lowered admission standards, but still and all, it would warm any headmaster’s heart. And bring in the bucks, as he’d said. Happy news. Sure, therefore, to be followed by a mighty powerful
The muscles in the small of my back spasmed in anticipation.
He hadn’t asked me to sit down. I bet he’d asked Mr. and Mrs. Evans to sit down. Sure, the school needed their money, but it needed teachers, too. And the students needed teachers who cared about their problems. So there. I sat down without being so invited. I had a long day ahead—unless he was going to march me off and shoot me immediately.
“Hmmm,” he said when I seated myself. “Indeed. And so …” He contemplated me for a long moment, then sighed
and sat down himself behind his oversized burl desk. “We are presented with something of a conundrum.”
I said nothing. It made Havermeyer nervous as hell to have his flow of words greeted with silence.
“Mr. and Mrs. Evans, as you undoubtedly know, have been exemplary in their support of this institution, and now they are understandably distraught in the light of your hasty assumptions and your unfortunate decision to use corporal punishment—”
“Ah, but I believe they have proof that—”
“They can’t. He was—”
Havermeyer ground on. “While a perusal of his records does indicate Adam’s increasing nonconformity and a lamentable recent pattern of noncompliance with official school requirements, given the realities of understandable parental concern and the seriousness of the suggested deviations from the norm and psychomedical impairments you have raised, I must assume your actions were less than fully considered. These were rash accusations—”
“Not accusations. I thought—I still think—Adam needs attention. I think he may be in danger. I’m a
.” It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to shame him into a thought about social responsibility. “It’s a teacher’s role to help a child in danger.”
Refute that one. I dare you.
“I could never forgive myself if I thought something was wrong and I said nothing, and then the child—something happened to the child.”
“Well, of course, yes, one shares your sentiments, although surely the parents are the first line of defense, the people most familiar with their own child’s—”
“In my professional judgment, not in this case.”
He fish-mouthed, glubbing dry air, sucking more words out of the atmosphere.
“In my opinion,” I continued, “the Evanses’ serious denial is putting their son in danger.” I had never before enjoyed “talking” with Havermeyer, but things were different when the pillow of possibility was there to cushion the fall.
Go ahead. Fire me. See if I care. I’ll become something else—I have other options.
“Miss Pepper.” I could tell he was leaving behind the issue of whether Adam was mentally ill or needed testing. Could see him puffing out of that station into the wilds where my real sins lay. “Mr. and Mrs. Evans are eager to involve the media in this dilemma. They feel you are relentlessly pursuing their child, abusing him both physically and emotionally and destroying his future. It is possible they are motivated by psychological stress, a sense of guilt, since they are going through a difficult time themselves, but nonetheless, they perceive themselves as Good Samaritans who must alert the community to your offenses and, alas, to what they see as a failure on my part to adequately monitor and supervise my staff. This is most awkward.”