Authors: Joanna Campbell Slan
Anya perched on the
edge of a chair. Her friend huddled miserably on a cot. Both girls bore that coltish, gawky, pre-teen air of supreme boredom coupled with incredible vulnerability. But the minute my daughter saw me, the walls came down. She flew off her seat and grabbed me. “Mom!” She’d been crying.
I hugged her hard. “You okay?” The middle school nurse stuck her head out of the adjoining office to offer a sad “tsk, tsk.”
Anya nodded. “I’m fine.”
“Tilly, honey, are you okay?”
The middle school nurse said, “We have a certified grief counselor available. I’ve encouraged the girls to talk to her.”
The girls studied their feet. A certified grief counselor? Wow, how incredibly upscale. I had attended a public school in Indiana. We didn’t even have a college counselor. No reason to. My schoolmates either: got married, joined the armed services, or went directly to jail.
As my mother-in-law would happily explain at length, I was not qualified to appreciate CALA’s high standards. Good old Sheila never missed an opportunity to remind me of my humble origins. She and I were getting along pretty well lately, but that was only because she wanted what was best for Anya. Me, Sheila could take or leave. Mainly, leave.
“Tilly, would you like to come home with us?”
She ducked her dishwater brown head and shook it. “Mom will be back in a minute. Then I’m going down and stay with her.”
Her mom, Maggie, was a teacher at the school—and a friend of mine. So Tilly was on her way to the kindergarten classroom where Maggie was substituting. The nurse explained since Maggie couldn’t be relieved of her charges, her daughter would “hang out” there until the end of the day.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Maggie. She’d have the inside scoop on the situation—and she’d know how safe our children were.
I hadn’t realized Detweiler was standing behind me, blocking our egress. I turned and nearly walked into his chest, getting a good whiff of him. As usual, he smelled slightly soapy and spicy and very male. Certain parts of my anatomy tingled with joy.
“I’ll need to talk with Anya again.”
Down girl, down! I gave myself a good mental smack. I’d gained all this weight trying to forget him, and now temptation beckoned. I thought I heard the strains of “Bolero,” but it was just my heart.
I think I whimpered. (So much for subtle.)
“Let’s talk while I walk you to your car,” he suggested, quietly. “Anya, you doing okay?” He put a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned into him, slipping her arm around his waist. Which totally undid me. I used the back of my sleeve to wipe my eyes. My poor kid. First her father gets killed by a wacko, and now this. Worse yet, the man she most trusted was the guy her mother had been working hard to avoid.
Detweiler waited until we were clear of the nurse’s office. “This is going to be complicated, and …” he shot quick glances over his shoulder, “… and there’s already a lot of pressure, this being Ladue and all. There’s the school and its rep.”
Charles and Anne Lindbergh Academy was the most desirable prep school in the St. Louis area. The school offers the finest education in the area. In fact, CALA was known all over the world for the quality of its graduates. As one mom proudly explained, “You go to CALA, you’ll never be without a job. You are part of a family.”
A large, very wealthy family with oodles of connections.
Detweiler had reason to be worried. With connections came lawyers. With lawyers came, well, BIG problems, especially for law enforcement officers.
I wouldn’t want to be in his penny loafers. Solving a murder would be hard enough without having all of Old St. Louis breathing down your neck, watching your every move.
Speaking of breathing down someone’s neck, I shivered with the thought of him re-entering our lives. Well, parts of me shivered. The other parts jumped for joy.
Then I got hold of myself. I gave myself a lecture which began with, “He’s married!”
And another voice inside me said, “Nobody’s perfect!”
I groaned. He’d been unfair to me. He’d let me fall in love with him—he’d even kissed me—and not told me he was married. And how about Anya? Huh? She’d fallen for him, too. She adored him. So had our dog, Gracie.
For months after my husband was killed, Detweiler had been wonderful with Anya despite her pre-teen mood shifts, found time to go on nature walks with all of us, patiently taught my daughter to throw “like a boy,” and thought our sloppy harlequin Great Dane was just terrific. He was also a competent cook who cleaned up after himself in our kitchen.
By contrast, my dead husband had invited his girlfriend along on father-daughter outings and told our child to keep that little detail a secret. Gee, of course George looked bad by comparison!
But then there was that wife thing.
I sighed. No way around it, Detweiler was off-limits.
And I had other problems. Problems like a killer roaming the halls of my daughter’s school.
The three of us stepped outside, squinting against the bright autumn sunlight. The detective opened the Beemer’s passenger side door and guided Anya inside. “Try not to think about this. I know it’s hard. But we’re on it. If you need me, you still have me on speed-dial, Anya-Banana.”
At the sound of her nickname—a nickname I was no longer allowed to use since my child explained she had grown up—my daughter gave him a weak grin. “Yeah.”
Detweiler waited for her to click her seatbelt before he slammed her door.
Reluctantly, I started toward the driver’s side. Suddenly, Detweiler grabbed my shoulders, turned me to face him, and stepped in close. For one torturous moment, I thought we were going to kiss. Then I pulled back. “No, please … I can’t do this. You need to leave us alone.”
He didn’t turn loose of me. He wasn’t swooping down for a kiss. Instead, he was pulling me closer to warn me. “Kiki, you don’t understand. I think she and her friend saw the killer.”
I raced into work
leaving Anya out front in my car with the engine running—after instructing her to lock the car doors. I grabbed Gracie, asked Bama to take my shift, and drove home trying to ignore my tremors. Had my daughter seen a murderer? If so, was she in danger? We already had my husband’s killer sending us ugly postcards and making threatening phone calls to my work. Now what? How would I protect my child? The weight of the world settled onto my shoulders. Being a single mom is tough enough. Now I was a single parent, trying to avoid a married man I lusted after, and hoping to protect my daughter who might be targeted by a killer. Or two.
Time to pull up my big girl panties, and go on.
“Anya, honey, do you want to talk about what happened?”
She turned a pair of blurry eyes and a reddened nose on me. “No,” she sniffed.
“Okay. When you do, I’m here for you.” I reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. She didn’t squeeze back.
The first thing I did after we got home was to let Gracie out for a piddle. The second was to eat an entire bag of Oreos. By myself. With milk. Weight Watchers would have to triple my allowable points to cover this little slip-up.
I brushed my teeth to halt my eating spree. Anya had settled in the next room in front of the TV. I needed a distraction. I dialed the one person who could tell me the school’s unofficial take on Sissy Gilchrist’s murder. Primarily, I wanted to know what the school’s security situation was. Surely the teachers would be the first to be informed of it.
“Is Tilly all right? Are our kids safe?” I asked. Maggie was still at CALA, and I could hear the chatter of busy kindergarteners in the background.
Maggie evaded my question. “Mother? I’ll see you at the regular time and place, Mother,” she said with special emphasis on the “mother.”
“Anything I can do for you? Or Tilly?”
“Yes, Mother,” my friend said. “We’re all fine. But I’m still here at work and very busy … so we’ll see you later.”
I figured someone was listening in and took the hint.
“Okay.” I knew she meant we’d meet for a bike ride out in The Valley, that low-lying space south of the Missouri River, not far from where our kids took golf practice. I understood she couldn’t talk, but I felt sorely in need of comfort. I was out of Oreos.
I needed to know how safe my daughter was. According to Detweiler, she might be at risk. But fortified by sugar and chocolate, I wondered what this might mean. Maybe his warning was just an attempt on his part to insinuate himself back into our lives. After I’d discovered he was married, I’d cut off all contact. I’d shredded numerous letters (unopened). I’d dumped an entire bouquet of yellow roses. (That hurt. I’d only gotten perfunctory floral bouquets from George on Valentine’s and my birthday. Never roses. Even if they were yellow for peace and friendship, they were roses. Tossing them out durn near did me in. I kept sneaking back to the trash dumpster, pulling up the stepstool and staring down at them through tears. Finally Dodie sent me home for the day.)
I’d dodged his calls. I’d labeled his e-mails as spam. I’d refused to answer my door when he came round. And my friends—Dodie and Mert and Clancy—had told him in no uncertain terms to stay away from me. They’d all been outraged on my behalf.
And yet, seeing him there at CALA gave me courage. I knew that whatever my daughter had endured, he was there to help and protect her. That he’d lay down his life for her. That’s who he was, and how much he cared about my child.
But on the other hand, he’d lied to me. Maybe by omission, but still …
I shut my eyes and called up his face as he relayed his worries in the CALA parking lot. Nah, he wasn’t being melodramatic. He was genuinely concerned that Anya might have seen Sissy’s killer.
After he told me of his worries, we had gone on to discuss what I needed to do to protect Anya.
“She’ll be fine at golf practice,” he’d concluded. “In fact, anywhere there’s a lot of people. I’ll phone you if I hear anything different. Try to keep her busy. You don’t want her to dwell on this.”
I figured the fresh air and exercise couldn’t hurt. And Maggie was in the same boat. She would have told me if Tilly wasn’t going to golf. That meant she thought the girls were safe. In fact, Maggie could provide me with the most reliable inside information on how the school was coping with the murder, and whether it would be okay for our girls to return to CALA on Monday.
I walked to the refrigerator and stared inside. I didn’t find any answers to life’s persistent questions. My stomach roiled, bloated with all those cookies, and I decided to give it a rest.
Anya stretched out on the sofa in our small living room, clicking the remote and moving from one sad parody of American culture to another. Nothing like an hour or two of mindless blather to help you zone out. I tried to contact my mother-in-law, Sheila Lowenstein, because I knew she’d be concerned about Anya. Sheila was dating Robbie Holmes, the St. Louis County police chief, so she’d probably heard about the murder at CALA already. In fact, she’d have the official low-down. She didn’t answer, so I left a message explaining Anya was okay and promising to phone later.
Except my cell phone beeped twice and signaled my battery was dead. Since moving to our new home, I’d chosen to forgo a land line. Both Anya and I had cell phones, and we could “piggyback” on the Wi-Fi signal from our neighbor, who was a famous author. (I actually owned one of his books and had it by my bedside, but hadn’t begun reading it.)
I figured Sheila would be irked when she discovered we were incommunicado. She liked keeping me on a short leash, especially after she forked over a significant portion of the deposit for our new quarters. It was a trade-off I’d been willing to make, but some days I resented her interference.
I filled a water bottle and changed into my bike shorts so I could ride with Maggie while the kids played golf. My friend was at CALA until the end of the year while the regular kindergarten teacher was out on maternity leave. With two kids of her own, Matilda “Tilly” and Matthew, Maggie had her hands full without substitute teaching, but Maggie’s one of those incredibly organized women who is so competent she makes you want to puke. And nice? Shoot. Maggie wrote the book on being sweet. As my nana would have put it, “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.” Maggie never riles anybody. She has no enemies. Zip. None. Consequently, her presence is always in demand.
This serves in vast contrast to
. I’ve heard that some folks actually shudder when they see me coming. I have this habit of stepping in it. I don’t mean to honk folks off, but inevitably I do.
In years past, Maggie has substituted off and on as CALA has needed her. It’s a tribute to her broad intellect that she can handle almost any subject at almost any grade level. In truth, the school probably values her for her steady disposition and her willingness to come in at the last minute as much as for her teaching abilities.
I had to nag Anya a bit to get her ready for golf practice. She clearly did not want to leave the sofa.
We pulled into the parking lot of the golf practice range and sat there. I wasn’t totally sure if I should let Anya out of my sight. Coach Bosch must have been on the lookout for us. He strolled over to the car and motioned me outside to speak quietly.
“I was in the military, and I’m licensed to carry a firearm. In light of what happened this afternoon, CALA has hired a security guard to attend our team meetings, and the course marshals have been alerted. Your child’s safe with me, Mrs. Lowenstein,” he said. The steely temperament reflected in his eyes underscored his dependability.
Coach Bosch was the school’s former football coach, and although an unlikely match for a team of hormonal and overly sensitive girl golfers, he was a legend to the school’s alums. The word was, he didn’t want to be put out to pasture (or more accurately an unused football field) after his years of service. And the alums loved playing golf with him and rehashing the ghosts of football games past. So a deal had been struck to keep him on as girls’ golf coach. With this compromise, he had access to all the best courses in town, and in return, could jolly up the alums to keep donations rolling in.
I thanked the man, but I didn’t quite relax until Maggie pulled up. Anya was still sitting in the car as I walked over to talk with my friend. “Are they safe?” I asked.
Maggie gave me a grim smile. “The day CALA lets anything happen to a golf team will be the day the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. I couldn’t talk earlier. Two policemen and Headmaster McMahan were standing outside my room when you called. How is she?” She gestured toward my daughter’s silhouette.
“She’s upset. How’s Tilly?”
I went back to the Beemer and opened the passenger side door. My daughter trudged out of the car toward the golf course with her shoulders sagging. Tilly also seemed discouraged. The two dragged their heels toward their chattering teammates. Fortunately, Coach Bosch hustled them along with a brusque wave of his hand. Our daughters teed off right away.
“I figured the fresh air would do Anya good. You must have thought Tilly could use a distraction, too.”
Maggie nodded. “Yes. Best to get their minds off this.”
“But I’m worried.”
“As are we all. Meet you over at the access road.”
A few minutes later, she and I strapped on our helmets and straddled our Trek 1500s. Hers was a 50 c.m. regular; mine was a 51 c.m. WSD or Women’s Specific Design. I love my bike. With silver spokes and narrow wheels under me, I feel like I can fly. Last summer, Anya and Sheila had decided I needed more exercise. (My weight is a constant concern for Sheila, and with my recent “see food/eat food” diet, she was very worried.) Working together, they bought me this Trek for my birthday. It was one of the best gifts I’d ever gotten. Even if I did fall off a lot in the beginning.
We adjusted our helmets and pulled on our biking gloves. “What happened?” I asked my friend. I didn’t want to taint her recollection by sharing what I’d already seen and heard.
Maggie shrugged. “Mrs. Selsner found the body and started screaming.” The noise of Highway 40 caught the words and ran over them like they were a cluster of cigarette butts tossed from a car.
“Doesn’t give me much faith in her ability to cope with a crisis,” I said.
“Be fair. There’s a world of difference between chickenpox and corpses. Poor woman. I feel sorry for her. Who wouldn’t have been upset about stumbling over a dead body in the balcony?”
“Such a ritzy place, too.” I flashed back on the velvet seats and the gorgeous, thick carpet. This was one of the perks of having a child at CALA. Your darling offspring took drama class in a theatre that would have put Broadway to shame. Back when I was a kid, we rigged bedsheets on clothesline tied to bamboo poles and sat on hard bleacher seats to watch the school plays in the gymnasium. But then I grew up poor as dirt. Which begs the question: Why would dirt need money anyway?
“It’s odd. Odd that anyone could get in. Policy dictates that the door to the balcony is supposed to stay locked during school hours unless a member of the staff is present.” Maggie emphasized “policy” as though it were a person’s name. She was a great one for following rules. “Mrs. Selsner saw it ajar, and she decided to investigate.”
“Bromo was the first person on the scene?”
Bromo was our nickname for Mrs. Selsner, a battle axe famed for treating every tummy ailment, every headache and nonspecific trauma with Alka-Seltzer. Rumor had it that Mrs. Selsner once told a girl with a sexually transmitted disease to rinse with Alka-Seltzer, um, down there. Definitely an off-label use. I shouldn’t laugh.
“Why do you say supposed? The door to the balcony is
to be locked? What’s that all about?”
We’d been spinning along at 13 mph, our normal warm-up speed. Maggie shifted her body weight, moved her hands onto the drops, and skidded to a halt. I slid in beside her, dragging one foot along the ground. The toes don’t last long in my bike socks because I haven’t quite mastered the art of an elegant stop.
“Don’t repeat this …”
I nodded. The biggest benefit of having a friend who teaches part-time at my daughter’s school is The Inside Scoop.
“Students have been making out in the balcony of the Latreau for years.” She saw the look of shock on my face, and her moon-shaped visage darkened. “Come on, Kiki, you know kids and their raging hormones. Don’t act naïve. We can preach morality all we want, but good values begin at home.”