Book three in the Anthony Award-winning mystery series featuring Amanda Pepper, the resourceful English teacher at Philly Prep. Available for the first time in ebook format!
Amanda is sorting books for a school fundraiser, when she comes across a book for battered women that contains a special and frightening message from its original, anonymous owner. Desperate to learn who donated the books, Amanda's search leads her to deliberate brutality and its cold-blooded consequences.
Gillian Roberts is "the Dorothy Parker of mystery writers, laughing when--especially when--it hurts, and giving more wit per page than most writers give per book." - Nancy Pickard
WHETHER IT WAS COWARDLY OR WISE, I WAS CONSTITUTIONALLY UNABLE TO rush to my sister. I went home instead.
I rationalized that it was too cold to drive my aerated car out to the suburbs, that I was sick and buzzed from mulled antihistamines, and that it would be stupid to approach Beth when her husband was home.
And mostly, I tried to tell myself the entire issue was a ridiculous mistake. It was inconceivable that Beth could be abused. Such monstrous acts could not be a part of the last Dick, Jane, Spot, and Baby family in America.
Except, according to the wretched book which I truly wished I’d never opened, they could.
Macavity the cat sat next to the small grocery bag I’d brought in. He yawned and pretended to be only casually interested in its contents. Then he sniffed disdainfully and stalked off as I extracted a can of chicken soup, vitamin C tablets, and a bottle of brandy—the combination either cures you or makes you not care that you’re sick. I swallowed a capsule, poured a glassful, and put the Jewish penicillin on to heat. Then I took my briefcase to the sofa and spilled out its contents.
This was a night of daunting alternatives. Quizzes on dangling participles and an SAT vocabulary drill; two editorials about Senior Prom for the school paper, which I advised; a scary book on battering; a potentially battered sister; and my mother’s annoying contribution, A Million Ways to Meet Men.
I picked up the last and least, and opened it at random. Its author delighted in men, capitals, and exclamation points.
TIP 24: READ A BOOK!!
That was a comfort. Actually, anybody reading that advice was already also following it, although perhaps this wasn’t the sort of book the author had in mind. Saying, “Hi, I was just reading a book on how to meet you” lacked a certain subtlety.
Guys love bright women, and being a person who has read a book makes a woman appear bright! “Read any good books lately?” is a tried and true winner of an opening line.
I tried—and failed—to imagine approaching somebody with that hackneyed phrase. Nonetheless, there was an illustration of a smiling woman and a beaming man holding cocktails, exchanging this badinage and presumably falling helplessly in love.
I felt a sudden almost irresistible urge to clean the house. This is always a sign that my options are becoming desperate.
“If you don’t want to actually read a book,” she burbled on, “then brush up on a book you’ve already read, perhaps in school.”
What an argument for literacy. Books as sexual aids. Read a book today, get a date tomorrow. Of course, there was the problem of what happened when he discovered that the last book you read was part of your tenth grade syllabus. I threw the pathetic manual to the far end of the sofa, and seriously wondered about my mother’s level of desperation. Was it really that terrifying having a thirty-year-old unmarried daughter?
One book down, but I still faced the unmarked papers and, most of all, the other book. I riffled through it again, trying to understand how devoid of hope a person would have to be to cry for help anonymously.
Macavity emitted a poignant meowl. He didn’t point a paw at the clock or roll around clutching his stomach, but his message was clear. I apologized, put down the book and went into the kitchen, where I belatedly prepared his repast and listened to my answer machine.
I have some problems with delayed-action phone calls. If a phone rings in a forest and nobody hears it, it’s not so bad, because nobody has to do anything about it. Why, then, do we connect it to a life-support machine and keep it artificially alive and unavoidable? Most of all, understanding that, why do I?
The can opener whirred as I checked in with my machine. All day long I am called by computers making sales pitches. I cannot bear thinking about telephone machines which are more sociable than I am, dialing each other in my absence to chat. The concept makes my fillings ache.
Mackenzie was not hostile toward machines. In his foggy twangy-drawl, he sent greetings and infuriatingly vague statements about being tied up for a while.
I imagined Jinx doing the tying, working him over with a rope. I wondered what other Southern perversities she’d cleared through Philadelphia customs. Macavity cocked an ear and purred at the sound of C.K.’s mutterings.
“You like the idea of being tied up?” I asked my boon companion. Then I remembered that game with the twine, cat’s cradle, and realized that felines are kinkier than suspected.
Macavity stalked the can opener. These days food was his only passion.
Mackenzie said he’d get in touch. He didn’t say when. Or with what.
The next voice was so determinedly chipper I knew she wasn’t a friend because I wouldn’t have one that perky. I listened to a cheery voice from Teller-Schmidt Learning Centers, a.k.a. TLC, remind me, the way my dentist does, that I had an appointment the following afternoon. I felt annoyed and patronized. The tutoring center had dealt with adolescents for too long.
Macavity emitted a plaintive plea. While the TLC voice chirruped, I absently plopped fishy kitty gorp on his plate, thinking about tutoring and income, the Mustang’s broken rear window, and time on a warm beach.
I bet Jinx went on vacation whenever and wherever she liked.
Jinx. I couldn’t fathom a mother’s choosing a name that meant something that brings bad luck. Such a name must make its bearer grow up with serious feelings of unworthiness. I hoped.
Or maybe she spelled it Jinks. As in High. A madcap fun-and-games kind of gal.
All this flashed through my mind, like sun on bright water, as Ms. TLC completed her merry spiel. She reminded me to bring recommendations and résumé, etc., etc. My only real reservation about the job concerned its moral ambiguity. The way I saw it, the less effective I made myself during school hours, the fewer students I actually taught, the more potential candidates for TLC emergency help I’d produce. Then I’d rack in bucks by miraculously becoming effective in the late afternoon, a pedagogic vampire coming to life as the sun sinks.
Macavity sniffed my offerings, checked that nothing better was available, and nibbled. I endured a whiny message from a senior who’d lost his contact lenses and whose parents refused to buy him a new set and who, therefore, could not possibly do his term paper. My thoughts veered to my own undone assignment, the book on the sofa. My sister.
I’d talk to Beth. I would. A little later. When I felt less afraid I’d be intruding, when—
I was so absorbed by my inner debate that I thought I was hallucinating, hearing her voice. But the senior had finished his lament and been replaced by my sister.
The book had indicated that violence often escalated during pregnancy. I couldn’t remember if that line had been underlined or not.
“I have galloping postnatal cabin fever,” Beth’s tape-recorded voice said. “I know you have better things to do, but if you come visit, I’ll do something nice for you. How ’bout I’ll tell Mom you’re engaged? Get her off your case. I’ll make him splendid. A congressman, an, um, environmental activist or a movie producer. Wait—how about a venture capitalist? Your call.”
She certainly didn’t sound desperate, except for company.
“Come on out!” She sounded like a late-night used car salesman. “They don’t call this neighborhood the Main Line for nothing.”
Truth was, TLC’s administrative office was a ten-minute drive from Beth’s house. I don’t keep an eye out for omens, but this seemed a cosmic shove in my sister’s direction.
I returned her call and she answered on the first ring, as if she’d been sitting with her hand poised over the receiver. My metabolism speeded up thinking of the book and Beth, and I grabbed for a last excuse not to do what I knew I had to do. “I have a head cold,” I said. “I could be contagious.”
“Alexander has no choice but to be hearty. His big sister is sniffling, as are all her friends. Don’t worry. I’ll keep him away from you. Even Sam’s been feeling—”
My brother-in-law’s name produced goose bumps. Good old Sam, a man whose only fault heretofore was intense blandness. “Come after school, spend some time,” Beth said. “We’ll have dinner, too. Sam’s working late tomorrow.”
I had no option but to do the right thing. “I have to stop at TLC first. I may tutor for them.” I wasn’t going to explain why, because Beth might remind me that I could vacation free of charge with our parents in Florida, a hop and jump from a certifiably warm beach. But the price was too high. Any woman who could send her daughter that book…
“That’s Wynn Teller’s place, isn’t it?” Beth said. “Give him my regards, and Lydia, too, if she’s there. She sometimes does office work for him.” Beth knew at least three counties’ worth of volunteers. “I haven’t seen her since the Valentine musicale. Gadzooks—that’s a year!”
The innocuous conversation was bizarre, given my real concerns. Or maybe my concerns were bizarre.