Holden gives her an annoyed look. "What do you need, Theresa? We've got another half hour, at least."
Like most employees of St. Stephen's, Theresa Cook is also a school parent. "I just heard something terrible," she says, her voice cracking. "Kate Townsend is in the emergency room at St. Catherine's Hospital. They said...she's dead. Drowned. Kate Townsend. Can that be right?"
Holden Smith's thin lips twist in a grimace of a smile as he tries to convince himself that this is some sort of sick prank. Kate Townsend is the star of the senior class: valedictorian, state champion in both tennis and swimming, full scholarship to Harvard next fall. She's literally a poster child for St. Stephen's. We even used her in a TV commercial for the school.
"No," Holden says finally. "No way. I saw Kate on the tennis court at two this afternoon."
I look at my watch. It's nearly eight now.
Holden opens his mouth again but no sound emerges. As I glance at the faces around the table, I realize that a strange yet familiar numbness has gripped us all, the numbness that comes when you hear that a neighbor's child has been shot in a predawn hunting accident, or died in a car crash on homecoming night. It occurs to me that it's early April, and though the first breath of spring has touched the air, it's still too cold to swim, even in Mississippi. If a high school senior drowned today, a freak accident seems the only explanation. An indoor pool, maybe? Only I can't think of anyone who owns one.
"Exactly what did you hear and when, Theresa?" Holden asks. As if details might mitigate the horror of what is upon us.
"Ann Geter called my house from the hospital." Ann Geter is an ER nurse at St. Catherine's Hospital, and another St. Stephen's parent. Because the school has only five hundred students, everyone literally knows everyone else. "My husband told Ann I was still up here for the meeting. She called and told me that some fishermen found Kate wedged in the fork of a tree near where St. Catherine's Creek washes into the Mississippi River. They thought she might be alive, so they put her in their boat and carried her to the hospital. She was naked from the waist down, Ann said."
Theresa says "nekkid," but her word has the intended effect. Shock blanks the faces around the table as everyone begins to absorb the idea that this may not be a conventional accident. "Kate was bruised up pretty bad, Ann said. Like she'd been hit with something."
"Jesus Lord," whispers Clara Jenkins, from my left. "This can't be true. It must be somebody else."
Theresa's bottom lip begins to quiver. The secretary has always been close to the older students, especially the girls. "Ann said Kate had a tattoo on her thigh. I didn't know about that, but I guess her mama did. Jenny Townsend identified her body just a couple of minutes ago."
Copyright © 2005 by Greg Iles.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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