Authors: Linda Howard
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Books by Linda Howard
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Howington
Many thanks to Sgt. Henry Piechowski of the Warren, Michigan, Police Department, for patiently and cheerfully answering all of my questions. He took my phone calls, gave me his time, and did his best to make sure I got it right. Any errors are strictly mine.
"This is ridiculous!" Clutching her purse so tightly her knuckles were white, the woman glared across the desk at the school principal. "He said he didn't touch the hamster, and my child doesn't lie. The very idea!"
J. Clarence Cosgrove had been principal of Ellington Middle School for six years, and a teacher for twenty years before that. He was accustomed to dealing with irate parents, but the tall, thin woman seated before him and the child sitting so sedately beside her, unnerved him. He hated to use the vernacular, but they were weird. Though he knew it was a wasted effort, he tried to reason with her. "There was a witness – "
"Mrs. Whitcomb put him up to saying that. Corin would never, never have hurt that hamster, would you, darling?"
"No, Mother." The voice was almost unearthly sweet, but the child's eyes were cold and unblinking as they stared at Mr. Cosgrove, as if weighing the denial's effect on him. "See, I told you so!" the woman cried triumphantly. Mr. Cosgrove tried again. "Mrs. Whitcomb – "
" – has disliked Corin from the first day of school. She's the one you need to be interrogating, not my child." The woman's lips were thin with fury. "I spoke with her two weeks ago about the filth she was putting in the children's heads, and told her that while I couldn't control what she told the other children, I absolutely would not have her speaking about" – she darted a glance at Corin – "s-e-x to my child. That's why she's done this."
"Mrs. Whitcomb has an excellent record as a teacher. She wouldn't – "
"She has! Don't tell me what that woman won't do when she obviously has! Why, I wouldn't put it beyond her to have killed the hamster herself!"
"The hamster was her personal pet, which she brought to school to teach the children about – "
"She could still have killed it. Good God, it was just a big rat," the woman said dismissively. "I don't understand what all the fuss is about even if Corin had killed it, which he didn't. He's being persecuted – persecuted – and I won't stand for it. Either you take care of that woman or I'll do it for you."
Mr. Cosgrove removed his glasses and wearily polished the lenses, just to give himself something to do while he tried to think of a way to neutralize this woman's poison before she ruined a good teacher's career. Reasoning with her was out; so far she hadn't let him complete a single sentence. He glanced at Corin; the child was still watching him, wearing an angelic expression totally at odds with those cold eyes.
"May I speak with you privately?" he asked the woman. She looked taken aback. "Why? If you think you can convince me my darling Corin – "
"Just for a moment," he interrupted, hiding his tiny spurt of relish at being the one doing the interrupting this time. From her expression, she didn't like it at all. "Please." He tacked that on, though he was almost beyond being polite. "Well, all right," she said reluctantly. "Corin, darling, go stand outside. Stay right by the door, where Mother can see you."
Mr. Cosgrove got up and firmly closed the door behind the child. She looked alarmed at this turn of events, at not being able to see her child, and half rose out of her chair. "Please," he said again. "Sit down."
"But Corin – "
" – will be all right." Another interruption scored on his side, he thought. He resumed his seat and picked up a pen, tapping it against his desk blotter as he tried to come up with a diplomatic way to broach his subject. There was no way diplomatic enough for this woman, he realized, and decided to jump right in. "Have you ever considered getting help for Corin? A good child psychologist – "
"Are you crazy?" she hissed, her face twisted with instant rage as she surged to her feet. "Corin doesn't need a psychologist! There's nothing wrong with him. The problem is with that bitch, not with my child. I should have known this meeting was a waste of time, that you'd take her side."
"I want what's best for Corin," he said, managing to keep his voice calm. "The hamster is just the latest incident, not the first one. There's been a pattern of disturbing behavior that goes beyond mischief – "
"The other children are jealous of him," she charged. "I know how the little bastards pick on him, and that bitch does nothing to stop it or protect him. He tells me everything. If you think I'll let him stay in this school and be hounded – "
"You're right," he said smoothly. On the Scoreboard her interruptions outnumbered his, but this was the important one. "Another school would probably be best, at this stage. Corin doesn't fit in here. I can recommend some good private schools – "
"Don't bother," she snapped as she strode to the door. "I can't imagine why you think I'd trust your recommendation." With that parting shot, she jerked open the door and grabbed Corin by the arm. "Come along, darling. You won't ever have to come back here again."
Mr. Cosgrove moved to his window and watched as the pair got into an old two-door Pontiac, yellow with brown rust spots pocking the left front fender. He had solved his immediate problem, that of protecting Mrs. Whitcomb, but he was well aware that the bigger problem had just walked out of his office. God help the faculty at whatever school Corin landed in next. Maybe, somewhere down the line, someone would step in and get Corin into counseling before too much damage was done… unless it was already too late.
Out in the car, the woman drove in stiff, furious silence until they were out of sight of the school. She stopped at a stop sign and, without warning, slapped Corin so hard his head banged against the window. "You little bastard," she said through gritted teeth. "How dare you humiliate me that way! To be called into the principal's office and talked to as if I were some idiot. You know what you're going to get when we get home, don't you? Don't you?" She screamed the last two words at him.
"Yes, Mother." The child's face was expressionless, but his eyes gleamed with something that could almost be anticipation.
She gripped the steering wheel with both hands, as if trying to throttle it. "You'll be perfect if I have to beat it into you. Do you hear me? My child will be perfect."
"Yes, Mother," Corin said.
Warren, Michigan, 2000
Jaine Bright woke up in a bad mood.
Her neighbor, the blight of the neighborhood, had just roared home at three A.M. If his car had a muffler, it had long since ceased functioning. Unfortunately, her bedroom was on the same side of the house as his driveway; not even pulling the pillow over her head could block out the sound of that eight-cylinder Pontiac. He slammed the car door, turned on his kitchen porch light – which by some evil design was positioned to shine directly into her eyes if she was lying facing the window, which she was – let his screen door slam three times as he went in, came back out a few minutes later, then went back in, and evidently forgot about the porch light, because a few minutes later the light in the kitchen blinked out but that damn porch light stayed on.
If she had known about her neighbor before she bought this house, she never, never would have closed on the sale. In the two weeks she had lived here, he had single- handedly managed to destroy all the joy she'd felt on buying her first house.
He was a drunk. Why couldn't he be a happy drunk? she wondered sourly. No, he had to be a surly, nasty drunk, the kind who made her afraid to let the cat go outside when he was home. BooBoo wasn't much of a cat – he wasn't even hers – but her mom loved him, so Jaine didn't want anything to happen to him while she had temporary custody. She would never be able to face her mom again if her parents returned from their dream vacation, touring Europe for six weeks, to find BooBoo dead or missing. Her neighbor already had it in for poor BooBoo anyway, because he'd found paw prints on the windshield and hood of his car. From the way he had reacted, you'd have thought he drove a new Rolls rather than a ten-year-old Pontiac with a bumper crop of dings down both sides. Just her luck, she had been leaving for work at the same time he did; at least, she'd assumed at the time he'd been going to work. Now she thought he'd probably been going to buy more booze. If he worked at all, then he had really weird hours, because so far she hadn't been able to discern a pattern in his arrivals and departures. Anyway, she had tried to be nice on the day he spotted the paw prints; she'd even smiled at him, which, considering how he had snapped at her because her housewarming party had woken him up – at two in the afternoon! – had been a real effort for her. But he hadn't paid any attention to the peace-offering smile, instead erupting out of his car almost as soon as his butt hit the seat. "How about keeping your damn cat off my car, lady!" The smile froze on her face. Jaine hated wasting a smile, especially on an unshaven, bloodshot-eyed, foul-tempered jerk. Several blistering comments sprang to mind, but she bit them back. After all, she was new to the neighborhood, and she had already gotten off on the wrong foot with this guy. The last thing she wanted was a war between them. She decided to give diplomacy one more shot, though it obviously hadn't worked during the housewarming party. "I'm sorry," she said, keeping her voice even. "I'll try to keep an eye on him. I'm baby-sitting him for my parents, so he won't be here much longer." Just five more weeks. He had snarled some indistinct reply and slammed back into his car, then roared off, the powerful engine rumbling like thunder. Jaine cocked her head, listening. The Pontiac's body looked like hell, but that motor ran smooth as silk. There were a lot of horses under that hood. Diplomacy evidently didn't work on this guy. Now, here he was, waking up the entire neighborhood at three A.M. with that blasted car. The injustice of it, after he had snapped at her for waking him up in the middle of the afternoon, made her want to march over to his house and hold her finger against his doorbell until he was up and as wide awake as everyone else.
There was just one little problem. She was the teeniest bit afraid of him.
She didn't like it; Jaine wasn't accustomed to backing down from anyone, but this guy made her uneasy. She didn't even know his name, because the two times they'd met hadn't been the "hello, my name is so-and-so" type of encounters. All she knew was that he was a rough-looking character, and he didn't seem to hold down a regular job. At best, he was a drunk, and drunks could be mean and destructive. At worst, he was involved in illegal stuff, which added dangerous to the list.