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Authors: Liz Jasper

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BOOK: Underdead
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It was a fussy recipe that demanded my full concentration. After a while, my terror began to subside. I cracked eggs, sifted flour and grated chocolate and became less frantic. By the time I had something to put in the oven, I had pushed all the things I didn’t want to think about into some dark corner of my mind and shut the door. My only recourse, I had quietly resolved, was to go on living as I’d had. If, as Gavin had said, I was balancing on a knife’s edge, I was going to do my damnedest to make sure I stayed on the right side.

Chapter Nine

 

“Mrs. Miller wants Jasmine transferred out of your class.”

“What? Why?” I gripped the arm of the visitor’s chair in the middle school principal’s neat office until my fingers turned white. Oh God. They knew. Of course they knew. It was all so obvious I might as well have walked around school with a “V” stamped on my forehead and a “Hi, my name’s Jo and I’m turning into a vampire!” badge pinned to my chest. Only an idiot—like me—would believe something as ridiculous as someone contracting a toxic sun allergy in their twenties. I should never have gone back to work. I should have gone to a bat-ridden cave where I belonged. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

“She thinks you’re a leper,” Maxine said.

“I—what?”

“And since leprosy is contagious…” She sighed loudly and leaned back in her leather chair. “I’m so sorry to put you through this, Jo. I wouldn’t have told you, but I think you have a right to know. I have, of course, told Mrs. Miller that she is a gossipy old harpy whose daughter is lucky to have a teacher like you. In the nicest possible way, of course.” She grinned and for the first time I saw the human underneath the glossy professional veneer.

“Of course.” I smiled back.

A little while later, I left Maxine’s office and headed toward the cafeteria for lunch in a much happier frame of mind. Maybe things would work out, after all. No one actually believed in vampires, ergo no one would guess what was really happening to me. I even toyed with the idea of taking off the small bandage I wore under my turtlenecks and letting my neck go commando, but only for a moment. The last thing I needed was for my students to think I had track marks on my jugular. All things considered, I’d rather be a leper than a junkie.

I stepped into the girl’s bathroom and a high school student I didn’t know did a double take at the mirror as she left—and I lost my head completely.

I pulled a tube of hand cream out of my purse and rubbed it all over the mirror so everyone’s reflection would be blurry. When I was done, I went into my classroom and locked the door behind me. My stomach growled in protest and I fed it a stale candy bar. I couldn’t go to the cafeteria. It wasn’t safe. Not for freak like me. What if someone saw me drool over meat packaging in the trash?

The only thing that kept me from going completely insane that week was the fact that my students were even more stressed out than I was. The semester was ending and they had finals, or as they thought of it, tests that would determine whether they got into Harvard or died alone, impoverished and unloved in a gutter.

By the time I’d calmed them down enough to prepare them for the test, and written it, and graded it, I found I had managed to work, literally, through my fears. Or at least repress them. I no longer jumped at every noise, slept clutching a baseball bat, and fought back a rush of tears when someone so much as mentioned the word “hamburger”.

There’s an adage about a window opening when a door closes, and like most adages, I found it to be true, if not in any way I would have expected. Once I stuffed all things vampire behind some closed door in my brain, I promptly started worrying about all those other things I’d managed to ignore. And on the top of that list was parent-teacher conferences. Rightfully so.

“You are an incompetent, ignorant, new teacher! Who are you to give Howard a D?”

Howard’s dad stormed out without waiting for an answer. I reached a shaky hand to wipe the sweat off my face and tried to look on the bright side. He hadn’t killed me. I could only hope poor Howard fared as well when his father learned his brilliant son had outright failed his math and English classes.

I glanced down at my agenda, for reassurance more than anything else, as by now I had it memorized. My next appointment was with Chucky Farryll’s mom. We’d sat together on the bus on the fall field trip, and if a busload of eighth graders doesn’t make you friends for life, I don’t know what does. This one would be easy.

I was starting to relax when Mrs. Farryll stormed in, waving one of her son’s tests. I winced when I caught sight of the big red F. I really had to stop giving those out.

“It’s all that Coach Bob’s fault!” She slapped the test down on the table between us.

I stared at her nonplussed. Bob? What did the tenth grade biology teacher have to do with Chucky’s earth science test?

“My son is a better soccer player than
any
of the kids on the varsity team, but Coach Bob won’t let him join the high school team until he’s in the ninth grade. Chucky is so upset, he’s purposely failing his classes so his father and I will let him transfer to the public school—they’ll let him play varsity there.” She pursed her lips and waited for my response.

“I see.” I spoke slowly, not quite sure how to respond. This was way out of my jurisdiction. “I’ll be happy to do what I can to help Chucky improve his grades, of course…”

“I knew you’d understand,” said Mrs. Farryll. She dabbed her eyes and smiled tremulously. The clock ticked loudly and she glanced up at it. “Oh!” She got to her feet. “I need to get to my next appointment. Social studies is in that pretty Spanish building with the big arch and all the red bougainvillea, isn’t it? Thank you so much for your understanding in this matter.” She shook my hand. “Chucky’s father and I do appreciate your help. We’d do anything to keep our son here. It’s such a wonderful school. He does so enjoy your class, Ms. Gartner.”

She stuffed Chucky’s failing test back into her purse and bustled out without waiting for a response, not that I had one to give, other than a blank stare. I was totally confused. What had I just agreed to? Oh well, if Chucky’s mom wanted to arrange some sort of tutoring schedule between his teachers, I’d find out soon enough. Maxine was good about masterminding that sort of thing. I checked my agenda again. Four more to go. Yippee.

A blast of musky perfume preceded my next parent by a good twenty paces. Subconsciously, I must have gotten an inkling of the woman who went with it, because I was more or less successful in schooling my features when she posed against the doorframe dressed like a Frederick’s of Hollywood runway model. Okay, maybe I exaggerate. She
was
wearing more than bra and panties, but not much. Even her outerwear was the sort of thing most people, or at least most Bayshore parents—up ‘til now, I’d have said all—would have worn
under
their clothes.

She was gorgeous in a come-hither way that would send the average male babbling and drooling. Her pretty heart-shaped face was impeccably made up, her silky long blonde hair tumbled over her shoulders in the artless way only skilled blow drying can achieve, and she had cleavage that looked too big for such a petite frame. She also looked far too young to have a thirteen-year-old, unless she’d gotten pregnant the very second she hit puberty. Maybe she was the stepmom.

I realized she was studying me as intently, only she didn’t take pains to hide it. It was pretty clear I wasn’t what she had expected, either.

“Ms. Gartner?” she asked doubtfully, in a low, husky voice.

“I am she.” I gave her my most welcoming professional smile. “And you must be Mrs. Beckworth?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, of course.” She spoke absently, still staring at me. Then she smiled widely and sauntered into the classroom, hips swinging. Boom-shiska-boom-shiska-boom. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said, posing momentarily near a counter.

She didn’t sit down, just wandered around looking at the planet dioramas the students had made for the solar system unit, though her glance frequently shifted back to me. I felt oddly as if I were on display at a zoo,
Homo sapiens-teacheramus
.

It was time I took control of the meeting. “Jodie is doing quite well, Mrs. Beckworth. She earned a B+ on the final and an A-for the semester.”

She nodded absently and wandered to the windows, looking at the blackout blinds. She fingered one assessingly. “What are these for?”

“They block sunlight.”

“Does it help with— I beg your pardon, but your face looks badly sunburned.”

I kept the smile on my face with an effort. “They’re very useful in the space unit—the room becomes good and dark when the lights are off.”

“Umm,” she said, her attention fixated on the curtains.

“We have a few minutes left, Mrs. Beckworth. Is there something in particular you wanted to discuss?”

She turned and gave me a sudden wolfish grin that made my skin prick. “Not really, Ms. Gartner. I just wanted to meet you. You’ve been
such
a topic of conversation at home these days.” She laughed, a musical tinkling noise, and left with a swing of her hips.

A moment later, Bob poked his head in. “Who was
that
?” He wiggled his blond eyebrows.

“Mrs. Beckworth,” I said, waving my hands around in an attempt to dispel some of her perfume. I gave up and joined Bob in the hallway for some fresh air.

“She’s a parent?”

“Yep.”

He gave himself a shake. “Hey, some of us are going for a beer later. You in?”

“Only if you make it a row of vodka shots. I don’t think beer is going to be strong enough to take away the pain of this evening.”

“That bad, eh?” He slung a sympathetic arm around my shoulders. “Hang in there, kid. It gets easier after you’ve been here for a while. In the meantime, I think we can arrange a beer and a bump for ya.”

“All right, then. I’m in.”

We heard footsteps on the outer stairs. “Sounds like my eight o’clock is here. Better go.” Bob headed back down the hall to his classroom and I sighed and turned back into mine.

I soon wished I hadn’t. My next conference was so horrible I had to finish it in the middle school principal’s office. It was the only way to get the parent to stop yelling. Maxine, looking as if she was genuinely thrilled to see us, winked at me as she ushered us inside with a practiced smile, a blend of compassion and steel that I really needed to learn before the next conferences.

Twenty minutes later, even Maxine was getting nowhere. She was just suggesting we continue the meeting on Monday, after everyone had had time to cool down, when we heard a loud crash from the second floor of the science building.

Maxine and I politely excused ourselves and walked out of her office, but the moment we turned the corner, we raced upstairs.

Alan, the physics teacher who taught just across the hall from me, was standing outside my room, his dark face blanched. “It’s Bob,” he said in disbelief. “He’s dead.”

“What? But I just—” I looked in my classroom and saw Bob, sprawled unmoving on the floor at the foot of one of the heavy lab tables, now pushed out of its neat alignment. Remains of the test tubes and beakers I’d left to air-dry on top of the table lay scattered under and around him. Blood pooled in a dark puddle on the floor from a wound at the side of his head.

“He must have slipped somehow and hit his head on the corner of the table.” Alan shook his head in confusion.

I pushed past him and bent down to feel for a pulse at Bob’s wrist.

“Alan, call 9-1-1. Now!” Maxine commanded. Alan stood dumbly for a moment and then headed at a run toward the computer room where we had a phone with an outside line. Maxine took a few steps into the room, stepping gingerly over the broken glass. “Anything?” she asked softly.

I shook my head, not wanting to speak lest the sound of my voice override any faint signs of a pulse. Frowning, I let go Bob’s wrist and pushed aside his collar to check his jugular. With a small cry, I pulled back my fingers. On the side of his neck, above his collarbone, there were two tiny triangular-shaped cuts. I quickly schooled my features to hide the sickening angst that burned in my gut.

“What?” Maxine said urgently.

“Nothing.” I reached for the opposite side of his neck with a logical detachment I did not feel. “He’s got some cuts from the glass on the other side, that’s all.”

The room got very quiet. I repositioned my fingers anxiously a few times without success. I got heavily to my feet and looked at Maxine, but she seemed to know before I said it.

“He’s gone.” I leaned heavily against the back counter. “We’re too late.”

Kendra came into the room, panting slightly from sprinting upstairs. She heard my pronouncement, and gave a cry of protest. Heedless of the broken glass on the floor, she ran to Bob’s side and began administering CPR.

Maxine opened her mouth to protest, but in the end said nothing. We stood watching Kendra rhythmically pump Bob’s chest, knowing it was a lost cause, but unwilling to stop her in case we were wrong.

Becky appeared in the doorway and gave a shocked gasp.

“What happened?” she mouthed, catching my eye.

I shook my head and shrugged helplessly.

A door slammed open somewhere behind Becky. She glanced back and then moved out of the doorway to make way for the paramedics. One of the EMTs automatically took over from Kendra, who joined me at the back of the room, tears streaming down her cheeks. When she noticed Bob’s blood on her hands, she gave a garbled cry and began scrubbing it off in the sink.

The EMTs stopped their resuscitation efforts before Kendra had finished cleaning her hands. Bob was dead. More than that, he had been murdered. In my classroom. I knew who had done it. The bite marks identified the man who took Bob’s life as surely as a fingerprint. Will.

Chapter Ten

 

The police arrived on the heels of the emergency medical crew. After a review of my classroom and a quick meeting with the headmaster, the senior officer began asking us questions, beginning with those of us who were huddled around my classroom and continuing on to the rest of the science teachers. Our department is housed on one side of a sprawling two-story stucco building, with a well-insulated theater providing a buffer between us and the English department on the other side. It was doubtful anyone outside the science department wing had heard the glass break, and since no one had come forward to prove that assumption wrong, the police contained their investigation to us. Unfortunately for the investigators, all the science teachers had been busy with some facet or other of parent night and were just as bewildered.

BOOK: Underdead
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