Authors: Michael Walsh
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
For my brother, Commander Stephen J. Walsh (ret.),
an officer and a gentleman
In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful.
, Book II
The morning school bell was clattering in the distance as Hope Gardner sandwiched her Volvo station wagon between Mrs. Moscone’s Escalade and Janey Eagleton’s Prius. She only nicked the Prius’s bumper, or rather the plastic piece of junk that passed for a bumper these days, and the gentle thump went unnoticed by her two children in the backseat of her car. She wished she had the guts to ding the Escalade a little, just to make it fair, but the Cadillac belonged to Mrs. Moscone, and nobody wanted Mrs. Moscone mad at them. Her husband was from The Hill in St. Louis, the kind of neighborhood where
was considered a documentary.
She wondered briefly whether she should leave a note, but that notion flew out of her head as the back door rocketed open.
“Bye, Mom!” shouted Emma, her twelve-year-old. Emma was blond, green-eyed, and filling out with a rapidity that surprised Hope, even though she had gone through the same transformation herself when she was her daughter’s age. One moment a skinny kid, the next…And if she noticed, how much more quickly the boys noticed too.
More than anything, Emma wanted to grow up to be Gwyneth Paltrow, win an Oscar, and marry a rock star, more or less in that order. Hope didn’t have the heart to tell her that the odds were several million to one against any of those things happening. But childhood was for dreaming; Emma would learn about the harsh realities of life soon enough.
Emma was halfway across the schoolyard as Hope turned to Rory. Rory was different. Small for his age, he was skittish, unsure, easily alarmed, especially for a ten-year-old. And right now his nose was running too. “Come on, honey,” said Hope, wiping his face with a clean handkerchief and pulling his zipper up tight. “You don’t want to be late.”
The first snarl of winter had come early to southern Illinois, and there was a stiff, chill breeze blowing into Edwardsville from the Mississippi, just a few miles to the west. Edwardsville was an exurb of St. Louis, but the big city across the river might as well be in a different country, not just another state. Edwardsville still had an old-fashioned, midwestern small-town feel to it, and that’s the way folks liked it.
Nothing ever happened in Edwardsville.
Rory snuffled again and wiped his nose on his sleeve; she could never get him to stop doing that. In the distance, they could both hear the school bell ringing, this time longer and louder.
Hope got out of the car and held out her arms to her son. “Okay, big guy,” she said. “Time to go.”
“I don’t want to go, Mama,” Rory said plaintively, not budging.
At times like this, Hope wondered if her son needed some kind of special-ed program. She had talked about it with her husband, Jack, but Jack was a no-nonsense, no-excuses kind of guy, dead set against it. His tech-consulting business did a lot of work with the military all over the Midwest, some of it highly classified, and as far as he was concerned, special-ed programs were for sissies and slackers, and his son was neither. The same went for “conditions” like attention deficit disorder and “diseases” with no physiological symptoms. “Nothing that can’t be cured by self-control or a good whack on the ass,” Jack would say.
Hope wasn’t sure she agreed with him, but there it was. And so Rory sat through class after class, his mind wandering, his grades mediocre, his teachers frustrated.
Oh well, not much could be done about that at the moment. And anyway, Jack was supposed to leave on a business trip to Minneapolis today, so further discussion would have to wait until he got back.
Hope reached in and took her son’s hand. It was cold to the touch, clammy, sweaty despite the weather.
Reluctantly, Rory let himself be hoisted up and out of the car. “Can’t I stay home today, Mom?” he asked.
In the distance, by the schoolhouse door, Hope could see a man waving at them, telling them to hurry. Later, she would recall that the man was unfamiliar, someone she had never seen before. Ever since Columbine and the other shootings, schools had become much more concerned with security, and strange adults were not allowed to roam the halls. But this man—white, blond, strongly built—was well turned-out in a coat and tie.
Must be a new teacher, Hope thought. Strange, in the middle of the term. She herself was a substitute teacher at the school, and she thought she knew everybody. In fact, she had a class to teach at noon; well, she’d ask the principal when she saw him.
The bell rang sharply, one last time. No other kids in sight—everyone was in the building. Except Rory, who was still holding on to her hand.
Before she could answer, his hand slipped from hers and he suddenly broke away. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can handle it.”
Hope watched him dash across the dead grass and the new teacher waved him home, like an airplane coming in for a landing. She waved once at Rory’s back, but he didn’t see her, ducking under the man’s arm and through the door just as the bell struck 8:00
A brisk gust of wind blew through her, giving her the chills, and it was starting to snow a little. She shook herself to get warm, then walked back toward the car. She made a short detour around the Prius, to see if its bumper was perhaps worse than she’d thought and was surprised to see that it wasn’t Janey Eagleton’s all, but one with Missouri plates. Now she didn’t feel so guilty.
It was not until she was halfway home that she remembered thinking it was odd they were lowering the iron bars on the school windows just as instruction was starting.
Mrs. Braverman’s fourth grade arithmetic class opened each school day with a moment of silence. It wasn’t exactly a prayer, which the children all knew would be illegal, but neither was it a chance to sneak in a few more winks of sleep before the day began in earnest. Mrs. Braverman saw to that as she patrolled the aisles between the desks.
Rory offered up some quick thoughts in favor of his parents, his dad going away on business, his mom always rushing around in the Volvo, which she treated more like a ferryboat than a car, locked in an eternal game of Cannibals and Missionaries.
Which was, in fact, one of Rory’s favorite pastimes: trying to figure out how to get various odd numbers of cannibals and missionaries across a river without ever leaving more man-eaters than men of the cloth on either side. It was a frequent subject of his doodles, but on this morning he tried very hard to visualize the scene: scary dark men with bones in their noses looking hungrily upon pale-faced creatures wearing what seemed to him to be full-length black dresses. You didn’t see many holy men around Edwardsville these days, and even though the Gardners were more or less Lutherans, their minister usually wore jeans.
Rory had gotten several moves into his game of mental gymnastics when Mrs. Braverman’s midwestern caw brought him out of his reverie and back to attention. He glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that, as usual, only two minutes had passed. Rory didn’t like math, and of course wasn’t very good at it, but he already had a firm grip on Einstein’s theory of relativity: the forty-five minutes between 8:05 and 8:50
were the Methuselahs of minutes.
Rory knew the drill, and so he flipped his book open to the homework page even before Mrs. Braverman got the words out of her mouth. Except that, on this morning, the words never came out of her mouth. Most of the other kids had done the same thing, but Mrs. Braverman had left her desk and gone over to the classroom door, a wooden one with a large pane of glass in it, the better for the principal, Mr. Nasir-Nassaad, to be able to glance in and give the class one of those looks he was famous for. Which is why, behind his back, the kids all called him Mr. Nasty-Nosy.
Some said Mr. Nasir-Nassaad was from Lebanon, others that he was really from Cleveland, and still others whispered ominously that they knew for a fact that he was a long-lost brother of Osama bin Laden. The funny part was that Mr. Nasir-Nassaad was actually pretty nice, even if he did remind Rory of one of his imaginary cannibals. It was always a disappointment when he opened his mouth and sounded like everybody else in Edwardsville: normal.
It wasn’t the principal at the door, however. Rory didn’t have a very good view of the door, but from the look on Mrs. Braverman’s face, the visitor was somebody she didn’t recognize. He could tell, because whenever she was unexpectedly interrupted, unless it was by Nasty-Nosy, she got this how-dare-you look, because as far as Mrs. Braverman was concerned, teaching was the most important thing in the world, and not to be lightly distracted.
She opened the door a crack and stuck her face in the opening. Rory could see only the back of her head. She spoke lowly, inaudibly, then took two steps back and opened the door wide.
A man came in—a man Rory recognized at once. It was the same man who had ushered him through the door as he scooted in. The blond man.
“Children,” said Mrs. Braverman. “This is Mr.—what was your name again?”
“Charles,” the man replied. He had an accent. He didn’t sound like he was normal, or like he was from Edwardsville.
“Charles. He’s one of our new substitute teachers, and he’s going to be helping out in class today. So let’s all give him a big Mississippi River welcome on his first day with us.”
The children applauded politely. “I’m just going to run down to the principal’s office for a moment,” said Mrs. Braverman. “Won’t be a minute.”
Mrs. Braverman took a step or two out the door, then staggered back inside the classroom as if profoundly puzzled by something that had just happened. There was an extraordinary look on her face as she turned to the class, and then she fell to the floor—sat down, heavily, as if bearing an intolerably heavy burden. She tried to say something, but no sound came out. Instead, blood suddenly poured from her mouth, her head rolled back, and her skull hit the floor with an egg-cracking report that Rory would never forget.
The new teacher, Charles, jumped into action. He leaped over Mrs. Braverman and slammed the door, locking it. Then he turned to the children.
“Everybody down,” he said. “Get under your desks and don’t look up, no matter what.”
Everybody did what he or she was told. Everybody was too shocked to scream. Everybody was real scared.
From under his desk, Rory could hear Mrs. Braverman’s labored breathing, growing slower. He knew she’d been shot, but had no idea who shot her. He wondered whether Charles knew first aid or CPR and, if so, when he was going to start helping her.
From outside the door came the sound of screaming and gunfire. Of running feet and the thud of bodies falling. It went on for only a couple of minutes, but childhood minutes are long, and these minutes were as close as youth gets to eternity.
Mrs. Braverman had stopped breathing. From his spot near the back, on the floor, Rory could see a widening puddle of red that had stained her pantsuit and was now spreading across the floor, toward where Annie Applegate and Ehud Aaronson were crouching. He wondered how long it would take for the blood puddle to move through the Bs and Cs and get to the Gs, and whether there would be time for him to find out.
Now it was quiet. Charles’s feet moved across the room, stepped over Mrs. Braverman, and stopped in front of the door. The rest of Charles was obviously listening.
“Boys and girls,” said Charles after a few long moments. His voice was calm. Rory thought that was cool—that Charles kept it together despite what had just happened. Rory’s own heart was pounding like mad. He hoped that when he grew up, he could be cool, like Charles.
“I want you all to stand up, leave your things behind and—very quietly—follow me. Everything is going to be all right. Okay?”
“You have to trust me. Stand up, keep silent, and we’ll all get out of here.”
This time, everybody moved and nobody made a sound. All that fire drill practice was finally paying off. As the children began Indian-filing out of the classroom, Rory noticed that none of the girls looked at Mrs. Braverman’s body through their tears, but the boys each sneaked a peek as they shuffled by. Nobody spoke a word.
“There’s a good girl…good lad,” murmured the man. As Rory approached, the man’s free hand reached out and stopped him. “Hold it.”
The line stopped; the children froze. It crossed Rory’s mind that the man was somehow going to blame him for what happened to Mrs. Braverman. “You were almost late for school,” the man said. “What’s your name?”
“Was that your mother dropping you off?”
“Yes, sir.” He was close enough to Mrs. Braverman’s body that he could have touched her with his foot. He closed his eyes in prayer. He didn’t care whether it was illegal. He didn’t care if they came to arrest him later. He had a good excuse.
When he opened his eyes, Charles was still looking at him. “It’s good to have you on the team, Rory.” Charles held out his hand to Rory. “You know what our team’s motto is?”
“Who Dares, Wins.”