Claire and Present Danger
Claire and Present Danger

As the excerpt suggests, C. K. Mackenzie has resigned from the Philadelphia Police Force and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in Criminology. For the sake of their budget, he's also working part-time as a P.I. and Amanda is helping out (mostly with clerical duties) when she can.

C. K. and Amanda are now engaged, though no wedding date's been set.

This is the first day of school and, as it turns out, the first day of a case in which Amanda's responsibilities involve more than filing papers...

I'm willing to bet my students think that at term's end, I'm taken to the basement of the school, deflated via a secret valve in my foot, and stored on a hanger until school starts again.

And I'm willing to bet they accepted and believed my happy-faced expression all during this first day back to school. My real life had begun again!

They might even think I believed their feeble expressions of pleasure, or at least acceptance, at being back in harness for another full school year, spending time with me, rather than the beach, camp, mountains, videos, CDs, or computer games.

We all pretended we'd missed each other terribly, and the day flowed on, busy with book distribution, my contracts with each class and the assignments I'd prepared. My theory is to slam them into the school mode so quickly they're not sure what hit them. Homework the first day and no turning back.

In a school like Philly Prep, where the majority of our students couldn't—or wouldn't—perform elsewhere, it's better to be whispered about with hushed horror ("she's so hard!") than taken for a teacher they can easily dupe. You always can—I always do—ease up and relax the standards, but you can't tighten them once they've discovered the joy of tromping all over you.

This seemed particularly important on an enervating hot and humid day like today. We used to call it Indian summer, but in fact, it's all-ethnicities and origins summer. It is, in fact and reality, still summer. We invented this premature, back-to-school autumn. We fill magazines with cute woolen sweaters and bright-colored scarves when in fact, it was a day designed to sit on a porch and sip lemonade, or better still, go to the shore. Surely not a day to find yourself back behind a desk. But while I saw children looking groggy from the heat, and I felt beads of perspiration on my own forehead by midday, nobody complained or made a case for starting school when the weather improved. That's the first day glow.

Today was also the day to get a handle on the feel of each class, what a business would call its culture. Every class is a new and unpredictable chemistry experiment. I wish I knew the secret formula, because when the personality elements combine the right way—teaching is one long high.

This is a rare situation.

Even when it doesn't work, I remain fascinated by the mismatches, and by how nothing really changes in the basic politics of school. On this first day, the class hasn't jelled into what it will become, but the players are there, ready to adopt roles that remain the same, year after year.

I could spot the potential queen bee in each group, the future Miss Bayou High. Just as when I was in high school, she was the girl who looked closest to how girls have been told they should look. She always had great hair, however that translated this year; a slender build; clean, even though not necessarily gorgeous, features; and a self-assurance she hid under an elaborate dance of self-deprecation. If a girl is too obviously secure about her appearance, it counts against her, sets the rest of the girls against her. This is not a good situation, but it is how it is.

Boys aren't taught to be modest and self-effacing. Their king—or perhaps duke if The King is in another section—can acknowledge his divine rights. Then there are the imitators, the hangers-on, the king and queen's courtiers, and somewhere on the fringes, the serfs, the unaccepted. The outsiders, the ones who don't fit the precut ready-made puzzle-pieces, are the most interesting. They'll someday spin being different—another word for unique—into gold or dross. They're the future inventors of obscure cyber-components, the performers and poets—and the highway snipers.

"You're choosing the grade you want to receive," I told my seniors. "Here are ten points you can or cannot cover in your discussion of the book you choose." The list included a dozen analytical approaches to fiction, such as types of conflict, point of view, with examples, and the significance of the setting, each with specific directions as to what the student would need to do about explaining that aspect of his book. They could choose to include six of the points and earn an A, four of the points and earn a B, or three of the points for a C. We didn't discuss anything less than that.

While I handed out the sheets and spoke, the alpha determined how her group should react. Would my assignment and I live or die? Thumbs up or down?

They weren't drones, and she wasn't a dictator. But she was popular, that most significant word in the school vocabulary, and she was the arbiter of what was appropriate dress, behavior and attitude.

A new transfer who'd obviously decided not to attempt to belong to the popular group—she of the blue lipstick, two rings threaded through her upper lip and a spitting cat tattoo on her bicep, studied the list, deciding what she'd do on her own, not so much as glancing at her classmates.

The alpha male, of course, rolled his eyes and pushed the paper to the side as if disinterested. The assignment wasn't fair—I was forcing them to abandon cool nonchalance and actively work for a given grade level.

I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back. My reputation for being hard, possibly even mean, was being strengthened. The first and best advice my student-teaching supervisor gave me was, "don't smile till Christmas." I still haven't managed that, nor did she mean it to be taken literally, but it's advice I've passed along more than once.

The day meandered on. In many ways—most?—I am as beguiled and naïve as my students and I view back-to-school with an optimism close to insanity. This year, I swear, I'm going to be completely and consistently prepared. This year, I'm going to mark every single paper the night after it's handed in. This year, every nuance of the classroom will be in service of some greater philosophical purpose.

Isn't denial a wonderful thing?

Every autumn I harbor such thoughts even though I know that within minutes, my energy and efficiency will dissipate under the inexorable pressures of time and reality. Simply learning who everybody is becomes exhausting. It's sad but true that you most quickly learn the names of the troublemakers, which might be the entire point of their troublemaking. By the end of first period, I knew that Bo Michaels, a big, good-looking dimwit was going to be a thorn in my side as he burned up excess energy by being class clown.

By the end of third period, I had two more names carved on my heart, Butch and Sundance wannabes, buddies who had long ago perfected their two-against-the world act. Unfortunately, there weren't any banks to rob in sophomore English, so they contented themselves with high fives, secret signals and unsecret ogling of the girls.

The day progressed until finally, it was last period with the newest Philly Prep students, the ninth graders.

I didn't love having them at the end of the day, but I didn't have a vote in the scheduling. By this point, kids are either ready for naptime or antsy and overeager to get out of the building. But this early in the term, and this painfully new to the building, ninth graders tread softly, adjusting themselves to being low men on the new totem pole, and to finding allies among the other young'uns.

"Let's try something," I said after distributing Lord of the Flies and asking them to put their chairs in a circle.

"Does this count?" an intense looking girl asked.

I spared her the near-obligatory pedagogical explanation that everything counted as a learning experience. She meant grades and I knew how she—Jessica, another name immediately memorized—was going to be straight through till June.

"It doesn't count," I said, wishing that I could say that in the real world when I was at risk for doing something stupid. "The book we're going to read is about a group of young people stranded on an island and I thought it would be fun to see how you think you'd handle the situation before you see how they did. So imagine yourselves on a desert island without a single adult around."

Predictably, they looked guilty as they laughed with pleasure. "Your dream situation," I said. "Paradise. But the snake in paradise is that there's no way off the island and all you've got is the clothing you're wearing and whatever's in your pockets. No food, no beds. The island is partly sandy beach, partly forest, partly a mountain and partly a lagoon. How would you organize yourselves to survive?"

I gave them twenty minutes to work out a plan, while I sat outside the circle, acting as secretary, taking notes on what they decided they'd do.

For a long time they looked at each other, waiting for someone to take the lead and tell the rest of them what to do. Finally, a red-haired boy broke the silence. "If nobody else is going to do anything, I will," he announced.

"What are you," another boy asked, "The chief?"

The red-head—Mike—nodded. "And here's what we have to do."

At least five boys protested. It wasn't fair. Just because he spoke first didn't give him the right to...

The girls, to my dismay, said nothing. Along with them, I listened to polite male jousting for position, until they finally decided there wasn't going to be a chief. Instead, an untitled somebody would check the chores and rules, and that role would shift every day. For the moment, however, Mike could be in charge.

Mike assigned jobs. "Who can hunt for food?" he asked, and I tried to imagine which of these city boys knew a thing about stalking prey—and if any did, why? We recorded the names of the hunters. "Who can fish?" This produced another male squabble about whether fishing should be separate from hunting and whether the same people could do both.

The females played mute until a pale, undersized girl raised her hand (unlike the boys, who shouted out their suggestions) and said, "Can't we—I mean the girls—can't we do something, too?"

A girl on the other side of the circle who'd been whispering to her neighbors gave the girl who'd spoken The Look. I have seen it my entire life. Fashions and slang change, but The Look remains the ultimate feminine, passive-aggressive weapon.

The Look shows no emotions except, if possible, a negative one so powerful it's like a suction pump. It's a black hole in the emotions, a blank stare, almost as if the girl doling it out were removing from its recipient both air and the possibility of human feelings.

I am sure the fabled Evil Eye was a version of The Look.

What a pity Lord of the Flies was exclusively masculine and these girls wouldn't necessarily see themselves reflected in it. I'd have to make sure they did.

After a moment's pause, Mike responded with Darwinian theory as he saw it. "We're more fit, is all," he said. "We're the hunters and we're the ones will have to tend the fire and watch out for wild animals and things. It's how it is. Survival of the fittest." He held up an arm and flexed his bicep for emphasis.

So much for my new-school-year optimism.

The girl who'd given The Look, a pretty girl with sun-streaked hair—Melanie, when I checked—giggled. "Oh, but really," she said, looking on the verge of a blush, "but really, what about us, Mike? You know, the unfit ones?" She rolled her eyes and giggled again. It was the same question the undersized girl had asked, but the first speaker had forgotten the self-deprecating part, the flirting part, the accepting that the boys were the leaders part.

Weren't things like that supposed to have changed a few decades ago?

"You'll do the cooking and cleaning," Mike said. "And of course, if there are babies..."

All the boys, because not a single pimply, gawky, undersized oddly constructed one of them would dare appear not to get the implications of Mike's line—laughed self-consciously while the girl who'd asked the question made yipping noises of feeble protest and covered her face with her hands.

They eventually had a plan, sloppy and incomplete, but they'd organized their anarchistic, adult-free society with provisions, laws and punishments.

It was a nice preface to Lord of the Flies, a nice sense that they could run things and no sense yet of the disasters built into their Darwinian fantasy world.

And worse, no sense that they'd already seen Darwin in action. Been Darwin in action, fighting for airspace and the means of surviving high school, which was its own desert island with no help in sight. I had to hope that a slender but great novel would help them deal more benignly with the process.

And now, the school day was done. Time to whip off my English-teacher disguise and become: Amanda Pepper, After-School P. I. Today promised to be quiet, more like Amanda Pepper, After-School Clerk; but I was tired, not yet re-acclimated to the unceasing state of alert teaching required, so I wasn't upset to be facing nothing more taxing than filing papers.

I stopped to check my mailbox before heading out. There wasn't much except Philly Prep's homemade junk mail. I glanced at items as I removed them, and tossed them into the nearby trash can until I realized that the new secretary looked stricken by my callous disregard for her hard work. If she hadn't authored the pieces, she'd been the one to put them in the cubbies. I saved the rest for a later, secret disposal, and as a secretarial kindness, I read through a straight-faced, dead serious reminder that the next faculty meeting's focus was "Our Mandate is Striving for Excellence." Faculty was urged to bring suggestions. The only suggestion I had, if we really wanted excellence was to replace the entire student population, a great portion of the faculty, and specifically, the headmaster who'd written the bulletin. The mandate might be striving for excellence, and good for it!—but if so, it was the only thing around that was. Havermeyer claimed he was upgrading the academic aspirations of the school, but so far, if you had the tuition and your kid's I.Q. was the equal of his resting pulse rate—he was in.

At the bottom of the detritus I spotted a pink While You Were Out slip that said, in a loopy handwriting with an open o dotting the I: Ntervu nr U 2-day? Call 4 d-tails. Signed with a smiley-face. I had to intuit the rest of it: that it probably was a message from Mackenzie, that it might have to do with work, and that it should have been delivered to me a good while back, before all those other notices were piled on top of it.

"Sunshine?" I walked toward the new secretary. She was here on an interim position, if we were to believe the official P.R. Helga, the office witch, was on indefinite sick leave. Apparently, being found in flagrante-delicto with the headmaster had made Helga gravely ill. It had certainly had that effect upon me.

Havermeyer's immune system—at least when it confronted his own offensiveness—was iron-clad. He was still around, although since the day I discovered them, he badgered me less often and seldom met my glance directly. I hoped Helga had a record-breaking sexual harassment case going, suing the pants off the man—much more fun, I'd have to believe, than removing them for any other purpose—and that she'd make so much money, she'd never return to Philly Prep to darken my days and hoard my supplies.

In the meantime, we had a sweet, though dim, replacement for the Witch: Sunshine Horowitz. ("That's not my real name," she'd trilled, making me think perhaps her name was actually Sunshine Jones, "but it's what everybody's called me since I was a teensie weensie baby!") "Miz Pepper!" she chirped. At the end of her first student-filled, undoubtedly chaotic day on the job, she didn't appear at all frayed or fatigued. "How can I help you?"

I was so unaccustomed to that kind of response from behind that desk, I was momentarily speechless. "This note?" I finally said.

She glanced at it, then winked at me. "You like Sunshine Brand Shorthand? I invented it all on my lonesome, and it's real easy to read, and fun, right?"

I tried to strike a casual, non-threatening pose, but there was no place to rest an elbow or forearm. Sunshine collected tiny metal animals, all polished to a blinding gleam and heavy on unicorns. She made her office "homey," she said, by lining them up on the center divide. "Ah," I'd said upon first encountering them. "The brass menagerie. By Tennessee's cousin Pennsylvania, perhaps?"

Her eyes were the pale blue of empty sky and my quip produced as much comprehension as a cloudless vista, despite her valiant smile. "States are related?" she asked. "Or is that some kind of joke?" Her smile remained wide and hopeful. Made me feel bad for confusing her.

"Some kind of bad joke," I'd said. "An English teacher sort of joke."

"Ahhh." She nodded and gave a conspiratorial wink. Obviously, lots of incomprehensible jokes and comments had been made in her company, but I wasn't going to add to them ever again if I could help it. She was too innocently, blankly, happy, and it would be cruel, like hurting a kitten.

The cure for Sunshine's saccharine self was the memory of Helga—scowling, refusing to allow me a new red pencil because it would deplete her stock of them. Sunshine didn't scowl. Not ever.

She was further confirmation of the wise saying, "Be careful what you wish for." If anybody ever asked for further confirmation.

"There's no name on the message," I said.

"No?" She wrinkled her nose and put a fake pout on her face. "Why is that?"

I didn't think I was really supposed to come up with an answer.

"I know! I remember! I wasn't given a name, that's why!" And she giggled.

"Maybe you were given initials?" I asked quietly.

"Could be." She shrugged and smiled. I let it go and, instead pointed at the time on the message. The call had come in an hour and a half ago.

Sunshine beamed that smile at me and nodded, proud, perhaps, to have written down what each line on the little form required.

"It says While You Were Out, but I was here the entire time," I said.

"They come from the store with that already written on it," she said. "Should I have crossed it out?"

"No, no. I meant... the messengers—those children who are here during the day, one or two per hour?—it's sort of a tradition to have them carry messages. Bring messages up to the teachers. It doesn't interrupt class or anything and sometimes, messages can be urgent."

She looked as if I'd given her a gift. "Thank you!" she said. "I had no idea, but now I do! Thanks again. People here are so incredibly kind!"

I walked a few steps away and turned on my cell phone. Mackenzie had a class in an hour and was probably en route, but he also had a phone, so there was a chance he could explain what he'd meant—or what he'd actually said. And maybe after that, I'd try to help Sunshine understand that she had to include information even if she couldn't turn every word into a rebus puzzle.

"I told it all to that—who was that?" C.K. said.

"I suspected as much," I murmured.

"Except the client's address and name. Didn't want to entrust anything serious."

He's a wise man.

"The woman's a block from where you are. Other side of the square." He'd upped the tempo of his sentences. I imagined him checking his watch, driving faster. "If you could do the interview, get all the information she has, a photo if you can—and more important, get a sense why she wants it. I need a feel for her."

"Fine. What's it about?" I loved the unspoken words, that Mackenzie trusted me, was ready to rely on my take on the situation, and my evaluation of what I'd see and hear.

"Need to make sure this isn't a stalker case. She wasn't all that forthcoming."

"Hasn't she seen old movies? She's supposed to swagger in, sit on the edge of your desk, cross her legs, and spill her guts or con you."

"She's got physical problems. Incapable of swaggering."

I didn't want to break the collegial mood by suggesting that a physically challenged stalker was, possibly, an oxymoron, although the concept of a stalker on a walker was almost entertaining enough to make it a worthwhile risk. "Do you think she didn't want to meet up with you in person?"

"That's what you'll find out."

I liked everything about this. About us. And about a stalker who wouldn't leave home. Must be frustrating, to say the least.

"Name's Claire Fairchild," he said. "Wants a background check."

Even better.

"On her future daughter-in-law."

End of the investigative fantasy honeymoon. I was indignant on behalf of this unknown future daughter-in-law. The back of my neck heated in vicarious outrage as I imagined how I'd feel if I found out that Gabby Mackenzie had hired someone to check me out.

"You there?"

"Yes, but I hate the idea of--"

"Of not being objective? Of taking only clients whose interests and activities dovetail with our world-view?"

Nice of him to use the word "our" while he kindly reminded me that I'd vowed to be less judgmental and to understand that few investigators were nominated for the Nobel Prize, and that the Pennsylvania P.I.'s code of ethics doesn't include "refusing to work with people whose behavior doesn't appeal to you." For some reason, they'd also left Honing to Amanda Pepper's Personal Sense of What Is Right off the list of licensing prerequisites. A PI license was a business license, not a higher degree in philosophy.

I'm familiar with all of this because more than once we'd discussed my likely need to dismount my high horse. But it had been theoretical then, and mostly a joke.

"You have time for it?" Mackenzie asked with an edge of impatience. "Sorry to be rushed, but my class—"

Of course I agreed, and I scribbled down the woman's name and address.

I was still thinking about pros and cons and ethics and investigating your son's beloved after I hung up, and my expression must have shown my disdain.

"Everything's all right, isn't it?" Sunshine asked. This time, her smile was small, filled with hope, but not quite ready to commit. I hated frightening her, casting a shadow on her golden world. I envisioned the landscape of her mind with Disney-style supernatural sunbeams crisscrossing one another and on each, a bluebird, warbling.

"Everything's perfect," I said. "In fact, I just got some good news." The good news was: this mother-in-law from hell wasn't mine.


© Gillian Roberts.