Down the table a woman sobs, and a shiver of empathy goes through me, like liquid nitrogen in my blood. Even though my daughter is only nine, I've nearly lost her twice, and I've had my share of nightmares about what Jenny Townsend just endured.
"God in heaven." Holden Smith gets to his feet, looking braced for physical combat. "I'd better get over to the hospital. Is Jenny still over there?"
"I imagine so," Theresa murmurs. "I just can't believe it. Anybody in the world you could have said, and I'd have believed it before Kate."
"Goddamn it," snaps Bill Sims, a local geologist. "It's just not fair."
"I know," Theresa agrees, as if fairness has anything to do with who is taken young and who survives to ninety-five. But then I realize she has a point. The Townsends lost a child to leukemia several years ago, before I moved back to town. I heard that was what broke up their marriage.
Holden takes a cell phone from his coat pocket and dials a number. He's probably calling his wife. The other board members sit quietly, their thoughts on their own children, no doubt. How many of them have silently thanked God for the good fortune of not being Jenny Townsend tonight?
A cell phone chirps under the table. Drew Elliott lifts his and says, "Dr. Elliott." He listens for a while, all eyes on him. Then he tenses like a man absorbing news of a family tragedy. "That's right," he says. "I'm the family doctor, but this is a coroner's case now. I'll come down and speak to the family. Their home? All right. Thanks."
Drew hangs up and looks at the ring of expectant faces, his own white with shock. "It's not a mistake. Kate's dead. She was dead before she reached the ER. Jenny Townsend is on her way home." Drew glances at me. "Your father's driving her, Penn. Tom was seeing a patient when they brought Kate in. Some family and friends are going over there. The father's in England, of course, but he's being notified."
Kate's father, a British citizen, has lived in England for the past five years.
A woman sobs at the end of the table.
"I'm adjourning this meeting," Holden says, gathering up the promotional literature from Apple Computer. "This can wait until next month's meeting."
As he walks toward the door, Jan Chancellor, the school's headmistress, calls after him, "Just a minute, Holden. This is a terrible tragedy, but one thing can't wait until next month."
Holden doesn't bother to hide his annoyance as he turns back. "What's that, Jan?"
"The Marko Bakic incident."
"Oh, hell," says Bill Sims. "What's that kid done now?"
Marko Bakic is a Croatian exchange student who has been nothing but trouble since he arrived last September. How he made it into the exchange program is beyond any of us. Marko's records show that he scored off the charts on an IQ test, but all his intelligence seems to be used only in support of his anarchic aspirations. The charitable view is that this unfortunate child of the Balkan wars has brought confusion and disruption to St. Stephen's, sadly besmirching an exchange program that's only won us glory in the past. The harsher view is that Marko Bakic uses the mask of prankster to hide more sinister activities like selling Ecstasy to the student body and anabolic steroids to the football team. The board has already sought my advice as a former prosecutor on how to deal with the drug issue; I told them that unless we catch Marko red-handed or someone volunteers firsthand information about illegal activities, there's nothing we can do. Bill Sims suggested a random drug-testing program, but this idea was tabled when the board realized that positive tests would probably become public, sabotaging our public relations effort and delighting the board of Immaculate Heart, the Catholic school across town. The local law enforcement organs have set their sights on Marko, as well, but they, too, have come up empty-handed. If Marko Bakic is dealing drugs, no one is talking about it. Not on the record, anyway.
Copyright © 2005 by Greg Iles.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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