Extracurricular

EC Book1Extracurricular / Book 1
Signal Press (Release Date: June 28, 2019)
BOOK 1 of an Episodic Series of 3 Books

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It's your child's senior year. 
A private high school's reputation is at stake.
A math teacher refuses to grade his final exams on a curve. 
Students have only one more shot at the SAT before college applications are due. 
And a few desperate parents with much more money than brains are willing to do anything to get their children into Ivy League colleges.

In EXTRACURRICULAR, a dark family secret leads to a college admissions cheating scandal at a private school, setting off a crisis of conscience for the parents, teachers, administrator and the students involved—and a catharsis for one couple about their marriage.

EC Book2 copy 2EC Book3 v2Extracurricular / Book 2
Release Date: Friday, July 26, 2019

Extracurricular / Book 3
Release Date: Friday, August 30, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 


Enter the Contest

 

READ THE EXCERPT FIRST, THEN ANSWER THIS QUESTION:
WHAT IS THE NAME OF THE ENTITY THAT WILL ADVOCATE FOR FAWN AT THE COLLEGE OF HER CHOICE?

THE PRIZES

Prizes5 Contestants Will Win:

: A $10 Gift Card from the bookstore of your choice;

: An autographed copy of my novel, 
The Baby Planner (trade paperback); and

A digital eBook of any one of my books (currently published, or a future title).

A 6th Contestant will be drawn as the Grand Prize Winner, and will Receive:

:A $50 Gift Card from the bookstore of your choice;

: A signed copy of The Baby Planner;

: An signed hardcover copy of The Housewife Assassin's Handbook;

: A digital eBook of any one of my books of your choice (currently published, or a future title);

: A jute tote bag sporting the Housewife Assassin logo—great for the beach or the store; and

: A stoneware ruffled pie dish from Crate + Barrel.

Talk about a fun bunch of prizes!

The contest ends Midnight Pacific Time on Midnight, Sunday August 4, 2019

RULES

1: No purchase necessary.

2. Read the excerpt from Extracurricular Book 1, and then CORRECTLY answer this question:

What is the name of the entity (three-word title) that will advocate for Fawn at the college of her choice?

3. Correct “CONTESTANTS” are posted below the excerpt. If you're answer is wrong, your name won't appear. However, you should feel free to enter again.

YOU EARN BONUS POINTS! HERES WHAT YOU MUST DO:

3: Follow me on one or more of these social media platforms:

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If you're already friended, send me a screenshot or link to MailFromJosie@gmail.com or
comment on the post so that I can see you there.

4: Share or comment on one of my #SummerReads #BeachReads #Extracurricular posts, which will include these hashtags, along with either a post of my Extracurricular or The Baby Planner book covers.

4: If you do both—share AND comment—each counts as a separate contest point.

5: If you do so on more than one platform, that also counts as a point.

In other words, the more you share, the greater your chances are to win.

CONTEST ENDS MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2019.

GREAT LUCK TO YOU!

—JOSIE

__________________


CHAPTER 1

Sometime in the Near Future

The San Francisco restaurant chosen for the FBI’s first sting in the college admissions investigation that went by the name “Operation Sis-Boom-Bah” was renowned for its exceptional wines (including a 2001 Pomerol/Saint-Émilion Bordeaux), and the fact that it had just netted Food & Wine’s highest honor, its Grand Award.

But none of this would be notated in Transcript No. 1-00351 of the video recording made of that initial meeting between Cooperating Witness Number One and her targets, Suspects Numbers One and Two.

Nor would there be any reference to the fact that Cooperating Witness Number One insisted that the Bureau honor the restaurant reservation, which she had secured a year in advance of the FBI’s sting operation. Case in point: her clandestine client meetings only took place in the best restaurants. Those anxious for her services frequented the same renowned boîtes and expected nothing less of her. It was the unwritten rule that she would pay for these meals—or, in this instance, the Bureau.

One of the two agents in charge of the case, SallyAnne Jagger, winced at this thought. Austerity was embedded in the rulebook of the country’s domestic intelligence service. Still, proper consent from their very reluctant division director was given when the operatives in charge—SallyAnne, along with her partner, Lionel Porter Polk VII—made a believable case that the restaurant’s mirrored walls would afford them close-range surveillance of the meeting from several angles, especially if they happened to wangle a couple of stools at the bar immediately across from their witness’s dining booth.

“Easily doable on a Monday night,” their witness had assured them as they made their way to the restaurant in an FBI-issue unmarked van tricked out with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment that was to be monitored by a third Bureau operative, Riley Kemp.

Unbeknownst to their witness, this was just one of her numerous random acts of entitlement that earned her the code name “Maleficent.”  SallyAnne had come up with it after listening to court-sanctioned surveillance audio in which their witness had coerced one desperate mother’s to participate in her scheme by claiming: “Besides losing out on better jobs and being ostracized by her more successful friends, your daughter is much too pretty to end up in junior college—where surely, she’ll be mauled by the gangs who roam the halls there.”

SallyAnne, a product of a junior college that fed into the state university that eventually earned her a jurisprudence graduate degree, let loose with a litany of obscenities that would have impressed a prison yard bully.

From then on, the codename stuck.

The restaurant in which the sting was to take place was located in Presidio Heights, a well-heeled neighborhood of stately Edwardian mansions with the occasional Victorian townhouse thrown in for whimsy and a little color. As they made their way down Washington Street, Lionel pulled out something from one of the van’s custom shelves: a soft flesh-toned disk.

“Put it in your left ear,” he instructed. “It allows us to talk to you in case we need you to say something specific.”

Maleficent shuddered. “How vulgar! It’ll look as if I’m wearing a hearing aid.”

“You can cover it with your hair,” he suggested. To make his point, he loosened the lock she’d just pushed behind her ear. “See? Like that.”

For a second, their eyes met. When she smirked, he turned toward the shelf again, but he was smiling.

SallyAnne wasn’t. She knew Lionel hadn’t meant it as a flirtation. Still, it was disconcerting that Maleficent took it that way.

Lionel next pulled a small alligator-skin clutch from the shelf and handed it to Maleficent.

She gawked, repulsed, then tossed it back at him. “What’s this? Have you been slumming at Ross Dress for Less?”

“No! It’s from, um, Macy’s.” Lionel pointed to the label, which read GIANI BERNINI. “It’s a designer bag, and it matches your dress, so I thought—”

“Well, you thought wrong!” Maleficent rolled her eyes. “‘Bernini’ is a house brand—ergo, a cheap knock off. One look at the logo and I’ll be the laughingstock of all my clients!”

“Oh…kay. Well…” Lionel looked over at SallyAnne and winked.

He might have been amused, but she wasn’t.

Still, he shrugged off SallyAnne’s scowl. As another idea struck him, he reached into a different shelf. This time he pulled out a bejeweled spider brooch. “Okay, then, you’ll wear this. It’s embedded with a state-of-the-art microphone and is somewhat less conspicuous.”

He attempted to fasten it on Maleficent’s little black dress, but in a moving van, the task was virtually impossible. Although Washington Street was mostly empty of traffic, Lionel was stymied by the periodic pickups and drop-offs, not to mention the van's sudden stops at each corner crosswalk.

Suddenly, Riley took a sharp turn. To SallyAnne’s horror, to brace himself Lionel’s hands went to Maleficent’s chest. To SallyAnne’s relief, at the very last second, he dropped his arms to avoid a possible claim of battery.

When they toppled onto the floor, Lionel landed on top.

Maleficent's response was to slap him, but she was smiling.

He leaped up first. Always the gentleman, he held out his hand to help her to her feet, but she smacked it away. Instead, Maleficent steadied herself on the van’s built-in shelves. Then, with the regal bearing of a Victorian side-saddle equestrian (apropos, since Maleficent was quite adept at this revived sport), she rose upright—not an easy feat, considering her short, tight dress and four-inch heels.

Snatching the brooch out of Lionel’s hand, she snapped, “Must you ruin my dress? My God, man! It’s an Oscar de la Renta!”

SallyAnne rolled her eyes. Maleficent’s disdain disgusted her, but not as much as Lionel’s undeniable attraction to the woman.

As if talking to a four-year-old on the verge of a tantrum, Lionel gently but firmly replied, “Sorry, but it’s our best bet for getting clear audio.”

“I’ve topped the Nob Hill Gazette’s ‘Best Dressed’ list three years straight. Just one glance at that cheap piece of tin and the marks won’t believe a word I’m saying anyway,” she retorted.

“Can’t you just tell them one of your students made it for you?” Lionel replied.

His suggestion was met with a French curse.

Her response startled him. But by the blush creeping up his neck, SallyAnne realized he was aroused too.

Figures, she thought.

They’d been partners for three years and through a bakers’ dozen cases—all high-profile white-collar crimes. At first glance, one couldn't imagine why their division director had seen fit to pair them. Standing side by side, they made an odd couple. Everything about SallyAnne was short: her height (she was just five-feet-two-inches tall), her hair (jet black, and bluntly bobbed), and most definitely her temper. The daughter of a postman and a librarian, she had worked her way out of the Bureau’s assistant pool after acquiring a night school degree in Criminology from the University of Virginia.

In contrast, Lionel was tall, fair, and had the stoic bearing that naturally comes from being the most recent of seven consecutive generations of Lionel Porter Polks, all alumni of Harvard Law School.

He wore the mantle of old money well. This invariably gave their more privileged suspects the mistaken impression that he would sympathize with their plight in getting caught. It also encouraged their hopes that, perhaps, he’d bend a rule or two for this wayward Cantab (Harvard), or that complicit Yalie (Yale), or the other imprudent Quaker (University of Pennsylvania).

Lionel encouraged this misnomer by talking their language: of private club memberships; friends they might have in common; and of the need in today’s world to put up with who had got a leg up in their world via Affirmative Action (woman, people of color, gay, trans, whatever). At this last, their gaze would shift toward SallyAnne, as if to imply, See what I mean?

After warming them up, Lionel questioned them gently on the specifics of their crimes. Viewing him a soft touch, they lied through their teeth, even after being warned that they were under oath.

Lionel’s encouraging demeanor never changed. It was up to SallyAnne to bring down the curtain on their devious act. She played the heavy, countering with fact in response to their fiction. Then, in her blunt, unvarnished way, she’d bark away at them, an unrelenting bulldog digging up the bones of their crimes.

When they finally cracked, they'd eye Lionel as if he were a traitor to their class.

Lionel always answered their silent glares with a shrug and the appropriate Latin phrase: Lux et Veritas  (“Light and Truth”) to the Yalie. For the Quaker, it was Leges Sine Moribus Vanae. (“Laws without Morals are Useless”). Only one word embodied a Harvard man’s shame: Veritas (“Truth”).

When presented with the evidence against her, Maleficent’s face never twitched a muscle. And her response when Lionel reminded her of her alma mater’s motto—Radcliffe’s Indsyria Didat (“Industry Enriches”)—was to snicker, “It does indeed.”

Instead of being angry at her, Lionel chuckled at her audacity.

SallyAnne’s knowledge of Latin was limited. Still, intuitively, it struck her that something had gotten lost in Lionel’s translation. When Maleficent joined him with a coy giggle of her own, SallyAnne realized they were speaking the same language after all: attraction.

As with any suspect, Bureau operatives were just as adept at reading even the most minute inflection in their partners. In Lionel’s case, willowy blond ice queens with steely gray eyes and lips that never rose beyond a smirk were his Kryptonite. In SallyAnne’s opinion, the fact that a well-heeled crook fleecing some investment firm had a closet filled with Brioni suits—or in Maleficent’s case, was helping the parents of spoiled brats steal college admissions slots from hardworking, better deserving students while decked out in Oscar de la Renta—didn’t make her any less culpable.

Up until now, she’d never doubted that Lionel felt the same way. She had to shut down his infatuation with Maleficent, and quickly.

“Listen, lady,” she growled, “Your dinner dates may be ‘marks’ to you, but to the Bureau, right now they’re designated only as ‘suspects’—which is a long way off from ‘defendants.’ Ergo”—SallyAnne loved that Maleficent winced upon hearing that word—“if they can’t be incriminated, you are royally screwed.”

She tore the purse out of Lionel’s hand and shoved it against Maleficent’s taut, possibly Spanx-trussed abdomen. “Now, if you want to shave a few years off what could be a long sentence, I suggest you take your designer phone and your designer makeup and any other designer crap you have in that overpriced designer handbag and stuff it in here. You’ll pay the bill with the credit card already inside the purse! Now, when you get to your booth, you’re going to place this flat on the table, like this”—by twisting Maleficent’s wrist in a painful position, SallyAnne also flipped the small purse horizontally—“so that the clasp is pointed at the suspects. That way, the video camera will pick up your interactions with them.”

Maleficent’s eyes narrowed to the point where only her long, starry lashes were visible.

For a while, it seemed as though time stood still.

SallyAnne had had enough. Grabbing the brooch from Maleficent’s hand, she added, “If it ruins this overpriced schmatta, well too bad. You are wearing this bug, even if we have to stick it up your—”

“What Operative Jagger is trying to say is that any possible reduction in your sentence will be largely predicated on the success of this operation. It’s strictly up to you, Ms.—”

Really? ‘Ms.?’ Come now, Lionel! A moment ago we were snuggled together on the filthy floor of this mobile monstrosity. Plainly, that puts us on a more intimate basis—”

“We’re a block away,” Riley shouted.

To make the point that the time for coy innuendos was over, SallyAnne pointedly pinched the bodice of the de la Renta and then pierced it with the brooch.

Maleficent’s painful squeal might have been in protest that the lines of her frock were now forever ruined, but more than likely it resulted from the brooch's pin pricked her. Riley had stopped quickly to avoid running over a nanny wrangling a double baby carriage and a leashed Doberman as she crossed the street.

Maleficent's screech was loud enough to wake the poor woman’s charges. But by the time she calmed them down, the van was already a block away.

The sting couldn’t start until Maleficent’s curses, threats and tears had subsided. Lionel watched her worriedly as she touched up the make-up smudges. “Why did you have to be so hard on her?” he hissed to SallyAnne.

“Don’t you understand what she’s doing?” SallyAnn retorted. “If she’s lucky enough to shove them and a few other clueless, overindulgent parents into the defendant column, sure, maybe some judge will be kind enough to carve a few years off of her sentence. But as far as I’m concerned, for what she’s already done to all the kids who should have gotten into those colleges— but didn’t, because some over-indulged cheats took up their slots instead—well, hell, Lionel! I hope he throws the book at her. Don't you?”

“Of course I do,” he declared.

SallyAnne exhaled, relieved. Thank God he’s not totally smitten.

“You know, I can hear everything you’re saying,” Maleficent muttered.

“Good,” SallyAnne snapped back. “And I’ll bet you don’t feel an iota of guilt.”

“Of course I do,” Maleficent retorted.

She was lying. SallyAnne knew this because her eyes stayed firmly on the mirror.

In fact, through the mirror, she could see Maleficent’s sly grin.

“Ladies—please!” Lionel sighed.

SallyAnne couldn’t wait to take her down.

* * *

They dropped Maleficent on the block before the restaurant.

Riley then turned the next corner. At that point, Lionel and SallyAnne got out of the van and walked back toward the restaurant. In the meantime, Riley had backed the van into a parking space right across the street, informing them and Maleficent of his great luck in finding a spot so close.

As they entered the restaurant, Lionel asked Sally, “Do you think she’ll behave herself?”

He got his answer: a snort.

The hostess was already seating Maleficent. As per Lionel’s instructions, through their earbuds, the agents listened as Maleficent demanded a booth directly across from the bar.

A moment later the hostess was back at the entrance. SallyAnne informed her, “We’d like to sit at the bar.”

The young woman smiled. “Sure, follow me.”

As Maleficent had predicted, the bar was practically empty. While passing by, they ignored her, but their eyes swept over the booth.

Watching them, Maleficent held up the Bureau-issued clutch purse. Then, with theatrical aplomb, she slapped it onto the table.

“Ouch!” Riley groaned into their earbuds.

Lionel frowned. Like Sally, he was quite aware that surveillance equipment was sensitive.

“Cooperating Witness One, please angle the purse a bit to the right so that I have a fuller view of the both you and the empty side of the booth where Suspects One and Two will be seated,” Riley commanded.

Maleficent shifted the purse ever so slightly. “You mean, like this?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Riley declared. “But without your middle finger blocking the center of the screen.”

Lionel and SallyAnne took a closer look at the booth. Yes, Maleficent was indeed shooting Riley a bird, albeit upside down. Feeling their eyes upon her, she ignored their stares but flipped her wrist so that now her middle-finger salute was aimed in their direction.

SallyAnne heard Lionel groan. Like her, he finally recognized Maleficent as a hostile asset.

About damn time.

* * *

By grabbing the two stools at the closest end of the bar, Lionel and SallyAnne were now directly across from the banquette where Maleficent waited for her clients: a couple named Gretchen and Seamus McCoppin.

The bartender frowned when Lionel ordered a glass of seltzer water with a lime. The goatee’d hipster’s scowl deepened when Sally Anne echoed the order. Then, feeling guilty about it, she added, “Oh…and your house red.”

She felt redeemed by the bartender’s grudging nod.

Maleficent was also ordering. Through their earbuds, her command to her waiter—“Martini. Dirty, with two olives. And bring it fast!”—came in loud, clear, and obnoxiously snide enough to put make Lionel wince.

The bartender placed their drinks in front of him. So that Lionel understood that in no way did she expect the Bureau to pick up the cost of her wine, SallyAnne pulled a credit card out of her purse.

“Don’t be silly.” Lionel patted her hand, then handed the bartender the card he used for Bureau expenses.

“Oh!… Well, thank you,” she murmured. For just a moment his hand lingered over hers. She wished time could stand still.

Sadly, it couldn’t. They were on a mission. To get the optimum view, the agents twisted their barstools so that they were knee to knee—something SallyAnne didn’t mind in the least. That way, they’d each have a partial view of Maleficent’s booth while pretending to be a couple in love. (One of them was pretending, anyway).

In seemingly no time at all, the restaurant filled up. Even the bar was getting crowded. Many standing there stared longingly at the lucky diners already seated at tables. A few of the bar’s patrons were obviously regulars. When they walked in, all they had to do was nod at the bartender and a minute or two later he’d place their drink in front of them.

The McCoppins came in on the next wave of patrons. SallyAnne recognized them from her numerous stakeouts of the couple’s stately Victorian mansion, which filled a half block on nearby Jackson Street. To exchange air kisses with Gretchen, Maleficent raised up from the banquette. She then offered Seamus a handshake. By the look on his face, she must have squeezed it firmly.

“Was she signaling him?” SallyAnne wondered out loud.

He watched Seamus for a long moment before shaking his head. “Nah. It was a power play on her part. She claims this pair is low-hanging fruit, but the emails Seamus exchanged with her are still too nebulous for our case. If she doesn't nail them on this, she's got to come up with someone else.”

He had a point.

Instead of worrying about whether Maleficent could pull it off, SallyAnne did what she knew he’d expect of her: play the role of the infatuated date.

This wasn’t much of a stretch.

Not that she’d ever let Lionel in on that secret. Should he ever suspect as much, unlike some of the other agents, he followed the rulebook to the letter and request another partner.

No, she’d prefer to keep her mouth shut, even if it meant a broken heart.

* * *

“Shall I order a few hors ‘d oeuvres? ” Cooperating Maleficent forced her lips into a smile that she hoped looked natural enough. To hide her jitters, she raised her hand and snapped for their waiter. “The amuse-bouche here is to die for! And having seen your wine cellar, Seamus, I know you’ll appreciate the Bordeaux I ordered.” She pointed to the bottle that the sommelier had already opened.

Seamus glanced around warily. “Well, maybe a glass—but no food. We want to make this short. I’ll be damned why we have to do this in public! What if someone overhears us?”

Maleficent’s heart skipped a beat when she noticed his eyes lingering on SallyAnne—until she realized he was gazing at her crossed legs.

Men are such pigs, Maleficent thought. And he’s sitting with his wife, for God’s sake!

Not that it would have mattered to Gretchen. They were two peas in a pod—both vain and covetous for attention from the opposite sex.

For that matter, if one hadn’t known they were husband and wife, one might easily assume that the couple was twins. Together, they had sandblasted the ravages of middle age from their bodies, minds, and souls. Their faces, devoid of all laugh lines, had been stretched into caricatures of their more youthful selves. Not that they could smile naturally anymore. Their lips, plumped with fillers, drove their smiles into unnatural lines that ran beyond the corners of their mouths and into their cheeks, giving them the appearance of crazed clowns. Their bodies were tautly sculpted. Looking at Gretchen’s chest, Maleficent wondered how many ribs she’d had surgically removed to get a waist thinner than Fawn, her seventeen-year-old daughter. As for Seamus, his arrogance was a given, but she assumed his flashpoint temper had something to do with the steroid injections it was whispered he submitted himself to maintain forearms that would make Popeye envious. No gray strands could be found in the unnatural chestnut hue on either of the McCoppins’ lush heads of hair.

Maleficent stifled the urge to slap his face—not for Gretchen’s sake, but for her own. She didn’t have time to dawdle, what with the Feds breathing down her neck. If she wanted to lighten her rap, she’d have to make the McCoppins ante up—and fast.

“Hey, you called me, remember?” she huffed. “So if you have something on your mind, speak up.”

“Yeah, okay, I do!” Seamus’ fantasy of being entangled in SallyAnne’s legs dissipated in the heat of his anger. “I want to know why I had to hear about your super-secret college admissions program from one of the other dads—some VC yutz who claims to have been behind Uber’s third round of financing—and at a school basketball game, of all places!” He scowled. “Hell, if anyone deserves your personal attention, it’s our Fawn! Jesus, when I think of the boatload of money to Ashbury Academy—”

“And time!” Gretchen chimed in. “I’ve been the chair of every school auction since Fawn’s sophomore year—”

“Don’t interrupt me,” Seamus snarled. Turning back to Maleficent, he huffed, “I sit on the goddamned board, for God’s sake!”

“Please, Seamus! Keep your voice down!” Glancing around, Gretchen nodded in Lionel and SallyAnne’s direction. “You’re attracting attention.”

Maleficent’s eyes shifted toward the FBI agents just in time to see them look away, mollified at being noticed.

Just my luck to have these Keystone Kops assigned to me, she fumed.

Still, she forced an encouraging smile onto her lips. “Not to worry, Seamus. I’m expanding the program to include a couple more students—but fair warning, they will be accepted on a first-come basis only.”

“Oh, thank God!” Gretchen’s screech pierced right through Maleficent’s ear. She wondered if it may have blown out the mic hidden there. “Fawn needs all the counseling she can get! She’s always so distracted. Her cell buzzes constantly. And the poor thing was diagnosed with ADD when she turned eleven.”

“Bullshit. She’s boy crazy,” Seamus grunted. “I’m beginning to think we should have signed her up for an all-girls Catholic school. Not that we remember our own experiences with those hard-assed nuns so fondly—”

Gretchen blushed at her husband’s indiscretion. “Truth be told, I’m at my wits’ end! I’m doing everything I can to make Fawn understand how important the right college will be to her future. I’ve threatened to take away her phone if she doesn't study. And every year since second grade I’ve made sure she signed up for at least three extracurricular activities. My God, she’s taken lessons on every kind of musical instrument known to man!”

“Only to quit them within a week,” Seamus barked. “We could outfit full symphony orchestra with all that noise-making crap in our basement.”

“At least she’s still cheerleading,” Gretchen pointed out.

“Yeah, wow, great. So she shakes her pompoms in a damn uniform that leaves almost nothing to the imagination,” Seamus groused.

Only because Fawn ordered her uniforms two sizes too small—on purpose, Maleficent thought. Still, she knew better than to say that out loud.

“At least that counts as an extracurricular,” Gretchen countered. “It’s her academic record that’s holding her back! How could that be? She’s taken Pre-SATs since sixth grade!”

“And we all know how well that’s gone over.” Seamus rolled his eyes. “Each time she takes one, the grade is worse than the last one!” He shook his head. “It’s been a damn waste of money.”

“The only thing left is—well, prayer.” To prove she meant it, Gretchen crossed herself. “Seriously, what else is there?”

Maleficent looked down at her wristwatch. It was a Vacheron Constantin and had set her back by about seventeen thousand dollars. She sighed deeply—not because she felt sorry for Fawn or for that matter her parents, but because she’d probably have to put it on eBay if she were to cover her defense attorney’s already humongous bill. “Not to worry,” she replied. “Fawn is a perfect candidate for this college admissions program. You see, it’s for students who are—well, to put it delicately, ‘at risk.’”

Gretchen blanched. “‘At risk?’ Fawn is not mentally deficient! Granted, she’s not the best test-taker, but that’s because—”

“She’s lazy,” Seamus insisted. “Well, that, and she has the attention span of a gnat—”

“Let me be blunt,” Maleficent interrupted. “Fawn is at risk—of not getting into an Ivy league college. And, frankly, considering her GPA and her study habits, it’s unlikely she’ll get into any state school either.”

Gretchen’s face lost all of its color. “Are you telling me that our only option is junior college?”

“Not necessarily.” Maleficent leaned in. “As Seamus has already told you, I’ve initiated an exclusive concierge college counseling program that guarantees acceptance to at least one of three Ivys.”

Gretchen nodded. “Yes, he mentioned something about it. But he didn’t explain how it works.”

Maleficent shifted her gaze to Seamus.

He shrugged.

Why that son of a bitch. He hasn’t leveled with her that they’re here to sign off on the bottom line! What, was he too afraid to explain it to her, or was she just too stupid to get it?

Not that it mattered. It was parents like the McCoppins that irked Maleficent most. Getting them both on record agreeing to the scheme would be a delight.

Unless Gretchen said no.

Damn it, Maleficent thought. If she balks and talks him out of it, I’m screwed. They have to take the bait…

Maleficent smiled as if she’d just won an Oscar. “Quite simply, I’ve built a network of decision makers within certain colleges who act as—well, let’s just call them ‘pre-admission advocates’ for those students who aren’t readily identified as an exact fit.”

“Oh…” Mystified, Gretchen murmured, “I didn’t know the universities provided such services.”

“Frankly, Gretchen, they don’t. But rest assured these strategically placed staff members would point us in the direction of least resistance. Just as importantly, they are ready, willing and able to sign off on students with unique qualifications for, say, certain little-known sports, or specialized academic programs, or clubs where fewer students are competing for the available spots.”

Gretchen frowned. “For example?”

“Here’s one: I have a contact at Fawn’s first-choice school who runs a university-sanctioned club——he calls it ‘Best Face Forward’—that actively recruits admissions candidates who are inspirations to others, and have proven this by volunteering for non-profit causes.”

The guy she referred to was a teaching assistant who ran several quasi-legitimate clubs that met enough of the university’s minimal requirements to be run on campus. Maleficent paid him handsomely to write enthusiastic recommendations on her clients’ behalf.

Gretchen shrugged. “What with cheerleading practice and AA’s sports events, Fawn won’t have time for any volunteer work between now and the end of basketball season. And besides, it’s like pulling teeth to get her to do anything that takes her away from her clique of besties.”

Maleficent chuckled. “No to worry! No one is asking her to actually show up at these volunteer events. She can get by with a few photos ops. We’ll put Fawn in tee-shirts bearing the names of a few little-known non-profits and—voila!—we’ve got all the proof we need. Oh, and she’ll write a few paragraphs imagining her experiences at such events. She’ll then post them to her social media accounts. You know, Instagram, Snapchat—”

Gretchen shook her head. “We don’t allow Fawn onto social media. Every parent knows that colleges troll those entities to find out all the ways our children are getting in trouble!”

Valid point,” Maleficent cooed.

Especially in Fawn’s case, despite her mother’s assumption otherwise. After Seamus contacted her, Maleficent did a deep dive into Fawn’s social media presence. The result was eye-opening—too much so. Unbeknownst to her parents, Fawn was prominently featured on several sugar daddy websites. She’d also created a YouTube video in which she demonstrated a seductive way to eat a banana.

When Maleficent informed Seamus of his daughter’s indiscretions, she’d quoted a fee of one-hundred thousand dollars “to make Fawn catnip to college admissions directors.” She now realized she’d sold herself short.

To offset Gretchen’s concern, Maleficent added, “In this case, the photos won’t be posted on Fawn’s social media accounts but those of the benefiting nonprofits.”

Creating websites for fake charities would be no small task, and the black-hat hackers up for the job weren’t cheap. The McCoppins’ rate just went up exponentially.

Gretchen nodded slowly, but her pursed lips Maleficent realized she was still unconvinced. “When Fawn gets on campus, what if she’s too busy to join this—this club?”

“Once your daughter is attending the university, going to club meetings are optional.”

Gretchen frowned. “Wouldn’t that be lying?”

Seamus guffawed. “That’s the whole point, Gretch! It’ll have to be faked because she’s too lazy and too selfish to have done this do-gooder crap in the first place!”

“Oh!…”  As if weighted down by this reality, Gretchen dropped her head. When she found the strength to raise it again, it was to fret, “Even so, what about Fawn’s grade point average?”

“As part of the program, I will personally coach her on those subjects that seem to be the most challenging,” Maleficent vowed.

“That would be all of them,” Seamus muttered.

Ignoring him, Maleficent continued, “And I’ll also nudge her teachers to do all they can to increase her comprehension of their test material so that we can inch up that meddlesome GPA.”

Gretchen’s lower lip trembled. “There’s still the issue of her Scholastic Aptitude Test. And, from what I’ve heard, there’s only one more scheduled before transcripts are due to the colleges.”

“Yes, well that does present a major hurdle.” Maleficent shrugged. “However, as part of the program, Fawn’s test will be given a leg up at the discretion of the proctor.”

“What does that mean?” Gretchen prodded.

“Woman,” Seamus huffed, ”What she’s trying to say is that someone else will be taking Fawn’s test for her.”

Turning to Maleficent, Gretchen asked, “Is that…is that true?”

“Yes.”

Gretchen’s eyes grew large. “Then…this cannot be sanctioned by Ashbury Academy!”

So that there would be no mistaking her meaning, Maleficent looked her straight in the eyes. “It isn’t.”

“And it’s got to stay that way,” Seamus warned Gretchen. “Do you understand?”

Gretchen’s mouth tensed into an anxious moue.

Maleficent froze as Gretchen processed this new reality.

Finally, Gretchen nodded meekly.

First crisis averted.

Maleficent found herself breathing again. She continued: “As I explained to your husband, I am not an employee of the school but an independent contractor whose job is to assess and assist AA’s junior and senior students on their college admissions process. As for this specific program, it is of my own creation. But because the methods needed to guarantee success are somewhat unorthodox, the program is run independently of the school.” She sighed. “And thanks to Seamus and a few other board members, it was approved so that, at my discretion, I could solicit specific parents whose children I deem are most at-risk.”

Gretchen’s blank stare seemed to go on interminably.

In Maleficent’s ear, Riley murmured, “Did the mic go dead?”

That was Maleficent’s cue to bring it home. Steeling herself, she added, “At this point, if you’re not interested. No need to continue. Shall I?”

The McCoppins exchanged glances. Finally, Gretchen whispered, “Yes.”

Maleficent stifled the urge to leap up for a victory dance.

Now, time to close this deal…

She smiled grandly. “Which brings us to a very delicate topic”—

* * *

SallyAnne was so engrossed in Maleficent’s deceit that, at first, she didn’t feel the tap on her shoulder. When it dawned on her that someone was trying to get her attention, she looked up and found herself gazing into the eyes of a man who seemed vaguely familiar.

Her mind raced through the possibilities. An old acquaintance? Maybe a former colleague? Perhaps a prior conviction now out on parole?

It couldn’t be the latter. Otherwise, his playful smile would not be lifting her spirits, making her heart race, and sending a thrill through her.

“Is this seat taken?” The man was pointing to the now empty stool on the other side of her.

That voice—

SallyAnne had an uncanny ability to hear a voice just once and remember it forever. In this case, she’d listened to his years ago: when he’d been interviewed on the radio.

By the way, he now slurred his words, she was surprised she’d recognized it at all.

She had explicitly listened to the show because he was her favorite author. He’d earned that honor with his debut effort, a coming-of-age novel entitled Extracurricular.

The face on the back of that oft-read book’s well-worn jacket cover now stared down at her.

When his author photo was taken, he’d been two decades younger. His hair had been thicker and longer, his physique thinner, and his life hadn’t yet suffered the gravitational pull between great success and some catastrophic fall from grace noted so nonchalantly in the press.

She was so stunned that she murmured, “No…not at all—Mr. Gable!

Her apparent interest in the stranger earned her a scowl from Lionel, who expected her undivided attention for the task at hand.

Intrigued by her recognition, Egan Gable plopped down hard on the stool. “Do we know each other?” He leaned in closer.

Too close. He exhaled enough Scotch to make her eyes water. Taken aback, she stammered, “I read your book—Extracurricular. In fact”—the words came out of her mouth before she could stop them—“it’s my favorite.”

Egan’s eyes softened. “Thank you for that. In fact, THANK GOD for that! I thought you were another infernal AA parent!” Without pretense, he scanned her head to toe. “But of course, you’re much too young to have children of your own.”

When their eyes again, she blushed.

Suddenly, SallyAnne noticed that Lionel was staring at her too. But unlike Egan, he wasn’t smiling. “Um…AA?” she stammered, “You…you mean Alcoholics Anonymous?”

“In this case, no,” he chuckled. “albeit,  many of AA’s—that is, Ashbury Academy’s—teaching staff are chip-carrying members.” Egan’s last word was accompanied by a burp. Noting her dismay, he quickly added, “Not me, mind you.”

Her anxiety had nothing to do with his sobriety and everything to do with the mention of Maleficent’s school. Was he here to meet with their cooperating witness?

Egan Gable waved at the bartender. “Speaking of which, may I buy you another”—he looked down at her barely touched glass—“wine? Or, perhaps something a bit more adventurous? I can vouch for the fact that the barkeep make a mean Sneaky Pete: whiskey, coffee liqueur, and just a splash of milk—”

Lionel leaned over SallyAnne and proclaimed, “Sir, do you mind? The lady is on a date!”

SallyAnne gasped. She never thought she’d hear those words come out of Lionel’s mouth, let alone so—so fervently. She turned to face him, only to realize he was staring back—

As if he were seeing her for the very first time.

It was the same look he’d shared with Maleficent when she’d teased him about her alma mater.

SallyAnne’s cheeks felt as if they were on fire.

A deep blush was creeping up Lionel’s neck as well.

Egan, obviously too drunk to notice, chortled, “Well, you’ve got an odd way of showing it, sir! Not only are you ignoring this, this”—a second burp came out loud enough to turn a few heads—“this beautiful young woman, the whole time I’ve been chatting her up you’ve s been staring over there, at that over-inflated Barbie doll!”

Swaying precariously, he swung his arm toward Maleficent—

At which point he took a closer look at her.

Suddenly, his eyes opened wide, as if they’d were no longer hazed. “Well, well! It seems I know Barbie—and for that matter, her Plasticine friends too—Ken and Midge.” As if attempting some semblance of sobriety, he straightened his tie, and then patted it flat against his shirt. “If you kind gentlefolk will excuse me, I think I’ll mosey on over and pay my respects.”

He walked off quickly but seemed to be listing to port.

Like Lionel, SallyAnne’s fear that Egan Gable might ruin their sting operation had them ready to grab him and yank him back. It didn’t help that Riley was yelling something at them through their earbuds. From what they could make out he seemed to be saying: “Let him go! She just said she’s expecting him!”

Maleficent knows Egan Gable? SallyAnne’s jaw dropped at the thought.

For some reason, she found this new bit of information disconcerting.

In truth, it was downright depressing:

My favorite author of all time is not only a lush, but he also has awful taste in women.

A Few Minutes Earlier…

“—Which brings us to a very delicate topic”—Maleficent was saying—“the cost of Fawn’s participation in the program. As you can imagine, such guarantees aren’t cheap.” She faced Seamus. “In fact, after hearing some of the hurdles Gretchen just pointed out, to do Fawn justice I must reassess my previously stated fee.”

Seamus’s glare left Gretchen cowering. When he turned back to Maleficent, he snarled, “How much now?”

She thought for a moment, then declared with a shrug: “Two hundred and fifty thousand.”

“You’ve got to be out of your mind!” Seamus sputtered.

“On the contrary,” Maleficent assured him. “It took a lot of work to set up a network that assures your daughter will end up in a college worthy of your investment in her.” She glanced at her watch. “Time for you to decide if she’s worth it. If not, no harm no foul. However, in an hour I’m meeting another set of parents who were disappointed you’d beat them to this appointment slot.”

The color went out of Seamus’s face. “You didn’t mention our names to them, did you?”

Maleficent frowned. “Of course not! When it comes to this program, I’m the soul of discretion—for obvious reasons.”

Seamus muttered something indistinguishable.

Hell, if I can’t understand him, Lord knows the Feds can’t, either!

Irritably, she asked, “Can I take that as a yes?”

“Yeah, okay,” he grumbled.

“Alright then.” She handed him a business card. “When you return home, wire a donation in the correct amount to this charitable organization. In fact, it’s the recipient of Fawn’s new extracurricular activities. In return—huzzah! Automatically, you’ll receive a tax-deductible receipt.”

“Well, that’s something anyway…” Gretchen’s relief was not shared by her husband, who silenced her with a scowl.

“Tomorrow I’ll begin Fawn’s transformation into the student we all know she should be,” Maleficent promised.

Unsaid was obvious: should be—but isn’t.

Not that the McCoppins needed their noses rubbed into this unflattering reality.

Gretchen leaned in so close that Maleficent thought she was going to kiss her.

Why? For being some sort of lifeline for Fawn? Ha! If only she knew!

Maleficent’s instinct was to recoil. Instead, she steeled herself, only to realize Gretchen was whispering in her ear: “Please… Fawn can’t know anything about this!”

Maleficent shrugged. “Mum’s the word.”

The vow was barely out of her mouth when she heard her name followed by the exclamation, “Well, I’ll be damned! Small world, isn’t it?”

The McCoppins blanched at the man approaching them.

Maleficent stifled a curse—one that she might have shouted out loud, and in English, no less.

Egan Gable…?

What the hell was he doing here?

She forced her lips into a smile before declaring, “Ah, well, look who’s here too—AA’s illustrious literature professor, Egan Gable!”

Noting how Gretchen’s eyes lit up, she then lowered her voice so that only the McCoppins could hear her say, “By the way, Mr. Gable, my top candidate for SAT proctor. I know how much Fawn dotes on him.”

“Oh? Well, …that’s great, I guess.” For some reason, Gretchen seemed both elated and upset by this bit of news.

Has he…and she…

Ha! She is such a harlot!

Not that this surprised her. Like daughter, like mother.

* * *

OPERATION SIS-BOOM-BAH

[Transcript #1-00351(A) between Cooperating Witness Number One (CW-1) and Person of Interest Number One (POI-1)

CW-1

Fancy seeing you here.

(Stares back at Agents Polk and Jagger)

Slumming?

POI-1

What, with that pretty little damsel at the bar? Are you jealous? Surprise, surprise! Not that I blame you. She struck me as smart and beautiful—and kind.

CW-1

She is also a…

(Pauses)

Jesus! Never mind! Enough of this bullshit—and enough of your little head games, Egan Gable! Oh, and as far as I’m concerned, our little deal is off.

POI-1

No… NO! You can’t renege on what you promised—

CW-1

Says who?

POI-1

But—but…Please…don't!

CW-1

Well… Since you’re begging. Perhaps we can work something out.

POI-1

(Sighs)

I told you twice already. I’m just not that into you—

CW-1

Don’t be a fool! I don’t mean sex, you imbecile! I’m giving you back what you so desperately want—

(Pauses. Then:)

If you’ll agree to be the proctor for Ashbury Academy’s SAT test.

POI-1:

(Suspiciously)

Are you joking?

CW-1:

Not at all…But you must do everything the job entails—to the letter.

POI-1:

(Shrugging)

How hard can it be?

CW-1:

(Shrugs)

Just the usual. Of course, the most challenging task concerns the seven special needs students. Their math portions must be substituted. Will you have a problem with that?

POI-1:

Why should I? Like you say, they’re ‘special needs,’ and all that implies.

CW-1:

I thought not.

(Sighs:)

There’s something I hadn’t mentioned before. It is a necessary evil. It involves the essay portion.

(Pauses:)

You’re also to provide substitute essays for those students.

POI-1:

(Frowning:)

How is that even possible?

CW-1:

It probably means pulling an all-nighter, but, unfortunately, it goes with the job.

POI-1:

Wait… I’ll be staying up all night with the kids?

CW-1:

Don’t play stupid, Egan. It doesn’t suit you.

POI-1:

(After a long pause:)

You’ve got to be kidding me!

CW-1:

Suddenly, you have a conscience?

(Clicks her tongue:)

I assure you, the pay will make it worth your while.

POI-1:

(Pauses. Then:)

Oh yeah? How much?

CW-1:

Fifteen thousand.

POI-1:

(Snorting:)

Knowing you, you’re pocketing at least a hundred thou.

CW-1

You arrogant bastard!

(After a long pause:)

Alright then! Thirty-five thousand. Take it or leave it.

POI-1:

(Pauses. Finally:)

So, how does this little scheme of yours work?

CW-1:

A week from Friday I’m to get the SAT answer keys for both math and reading, as well as the essay questions. That night, I’ll drop them by your place along with the names of the students involved.  After they take their tests, you’re to substitute the math and reading portions with ones that you’ve already filled in correctly—especially the math portion, although, so that the tests look valid, you’re to miss one or two answers in the reading questions. And Egan, just make sure they are different mistakes on each student’s test, okay?

POI-1:

Yeah, yeah, okay, whatever. And what about the essays?

CW-1

The way the SAT board weights things, a well-written essay is merely icing on the cake. I know you well enough to appreciate your bullshitting skillset, so I’m sure you’ll elevate the students into the literary stratosphere should be child’s play for you. And since you already teach these students, matching the essay topics to their voices shouldn’t be that difficult for you.

POI-1:

If you say so.

(Sighs)

One caveat, babe: I’ll want my money a week before the test, or it’s no go.

CW-1:

(Seductively)

That’s the easy part. In fact, I can stop by later tonight with the cash and a receipt for—let’s call it ‘services rendered.”

POI-1:

(After a pause, then a resigned shrug:)

Sure, why not?

* * *

Realizing that Egan and Maleficent would be parting ways any moment now, Lionel directed SallyAnne to make her way to the van first. “That way, Romeo doesn’t have a reason to stick around.”

She nodded but said nothing. Still, she was flattered that Lionel would assume as much. She was out the door in a flash.

A moment later, Egan left the table too. By then, SallyAnne had joined Riley in the back of the van, where he was watching Maleficent on the monitor. Pointing to her, he muttered, “She’s one cool bitch.”

SallyAnne hoped he didn’t mean that as a compliment.

* * *

As directed, Maleficent paid her bill with the credit card in the purse. When she rose to leave, she noticed that Lionel was now sitting alone at the bar. She’d been given strict instructions to ignore the agents, but she could not resist the urge to saunter over. She even dared to take SallyAnne’s stool.

She waited until the bartender went off to make her signature martini when she murmured to Lionel, “I’m scared. I hope you know that. And I’m doing my best to help you—”

“Cut the bullshit,” he muttered. His lips barely moved as he stared straight ahead, but his words came out clearly and firmly. “We’re the ones helping you—to save yourself. And lady, from what I can tell you actually enjoy taking the others down with you. So if you want sympathy, look elsewhere. In the meantime, head for the van so that you can turn in your gear.”

She stared at him but knew better than to say anything. She did as she was told.

* * *

Between the time Lionel put Maleficent in her place and she arrived at the van Riley had finally stopped laughing at Lionel’s putdown.

Although SallyAnne was also impressed, to hide it from Riley she merely shrugged.

Maleficent entered the van. Without a word, she pulled out the ear mic and tossed it along with the clutch purse to SallyAnne. As for the brooch, she practically ripped it off her dress. When SallyAnne offered to help, she snarled, “Don’t you dare touch me.”

A few minutes later, Lionel showed up. He sat up front with Riley.

When they dropped Maleficent in front of her home—a high-rise building on Russian Hill with a straight-on bay view—it was up to SallyAnne to tell her: “You did a great job in covering your tracks—too good, in fact. Unless you figure out a way to get evidence on the other six families, we’ll have a difficult time convincing the judge that you’re doing your best to cooperate. In these few weeks before the SAT test, I suggest you call to set up meetings with the other suspects to go over the process again with them. That way we can record their corroborations.”

Maleficent purred, “My, my! Aren’t you the little taskmistress! Silly me—I thought naming names would be sufficient.” She stuck out her hand in a Nazi salute. “I’m on it, mein Füher.” She slammed the van door on her way out.

* * *

As opposed to heading back downtown to the office to transcribe the video, Lionel suggested they tackle it at SallyAnne’s place, which was just a few blocks away, in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood. The idea seemed reasonable enough. Despite the look of longing he’d let slip in the restaurant, SallyAnne had no illusions that he’d breach protocol over it.

After she typed it up, they read it over. When Lionel got to the part where Maleficent was left alone with Egan, Lionel suddenly declared, “You need to change something.” He pointed to the first time in the transcript that SallyAnne labeled Egan Person of Interest Number One.

“But…why?” she asked “He isn’t yet a suspect or a defendant—”

“You’re right, he wasn’t—that is, up until the moment he agreed to participate in Maleficent’s scheme. Ergo”—Lionel smirked as he said the word—“in keeping with Bureau policy since we’ll soon be arresting him for conspiracy to commit fraud, we can go ahead and use ‘Defendant Number Three’ as his descriptive.”

“Granted, he conspired. But how do we know if he committed the overt act of actually accepting the money?”

“Maleficent doesn’t know it, but we’re still recording her through her cell. Remember? In fact, Riley is still on surveillance. He followed her over to Gable’s apartment and texted a confirmation ten minutes ago—along with a few jealous comments about your crush’s staying power.”

“Oh.” The impact of this revelation was heard in her soft delivery.

Lionel clicked his tongue in mock dismay. “Agent Jagger, I’m beginning to think you’re sweet on Defendant Number Three.”

To deflect the heat she felt in her cheeks, she retorted, “Don’t worry. I’m not. For that matter, if it were true, would the thought of it make you jealous?”

“Heck, yeah, it would.” He shrugged. “But… Just…Never mind.” To avoid her gaze, he looked at his watch. “I should take off.”

She nodded.

SallyAnne followed him to the door. When he opened it, he stood there just long enough for her to give in to her impulse to do the unthinkable: she raised up on tiptoes to kiss him.

She’d aimed for his cheek but he turned his head, and their lips met instead.

He didn’t pull away. In fact, he took her in his arms.

When they finally parted, neither said a word. But there was longing and shame in his eyes. She had no doubt hers reflected the same hues of emotions.

After locking the door behind him, she leaned against it and cried.

* * *

As SallyAnne’s head hit her pillow, her feelings were still thrumming from Lionel’s kiss. She didn’t dare guess what would become of their friendship. But if their professional association were to survive, she’d have to keep her feelings for him at bay.

To put him out of her mind, she thought of Egan Gable.

From his writing, she’d always imagined he had a great strength of character. Frankly, now knowing what depths he was willing to sink to—and for so little money at that—made her want to cry.

How does that happen, she wondered. How could someone who writes so eloquently—and with such passion—be so callous, so unfeeling?

But then she remembered that she was judging him on a book he’d written two decades ago; and a work of fiction at that.

She teared up at her own naïvety.

People change over time, she realized. Really, it’s tiny twists of fate that change us.

The proof was Lionel.

She smiled at the thought of him.

Suddenly, she pitied Egan. He’s like Icarus, she reasoned. He flew too close to the sun, only to fall into a sea of despair.

And now he’s drowning…

 

Twenty-Two Years Ago 

CHAPTER 1

If Audrey Thorpe hadn’t caught Jeremy Blake, her boyfriend of two years, nailing some cheerleader who, rumor had it, could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue, it’s just possible that she might not have been so susceptible to Egan Gable’s charms.

The break-up happened during an SAT testing session hosted by a rival school, Saint Ignatius Prep. Both Audrey and Jeremy had taken the test once already, in the spring. And although they’d both scored over 1500, each was competitive enough to want another go at it. For Audrey, it had been the math segment that had tripped her up the first time, whereas Jeremy had gotten a perfect score there. He was, after all, San Francisco’s Mathlete champ.

They’d gone over to St. Ignatius together, in Jeremy’s father’s car. But because their last names were at the opposite ends of the alphabet, they were put in separate auditoriums. Unlike their school, Ashbury Academy—which was relatively new and crammed all of its 120 students in a dilapidated Victorian mansion on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood—S.I.’s campus was humongous, boasting two ball fields and two theaters, as well as the two auditoriums. In fact, the private school’s coffers were so full that it was in the process of building a second gymnasium.

During the first hour of testing, Audrey and Jeremy tackled different sections of the test. For Audrey, it was Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. For Jeremy, it was Math, so it was no surprise that he whipped through it with at least twenty-three minutes to spare, giving Audrey a thumbs-up through the auditorium’s exterior window, indicating that he’d wait for her outside until the break period.

Although creative writing was Audrey’s strength, the essay question was stumping her:

According to Winston Churchill, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Is there any personal situation in which a lie would be validated? Explain why or why not.

Hmmm, thought Audrey. Is there only one right answer to this question? And if so, what if I choose the wrong one?

Or, is this one of those times in which there is no one right answer, and therefore I’ll be judged on not what I write, but how I make my case?

Audrey’s dilemma was, in a nutshell, the Achilles’ heel on her high school’s academic philosophy. Although Ashbury Academy was known for its focus on its students’ critical thinking skills, in some cases (at least, in Audrey’s case) too much of it went on.

And on. And on.

Inevitably, emotional paralysis set in.

Twenty minutes later, Audrey was still in a panic. This essay counts for a quarter my total score! I can’t afford to screw it up…

The reason for her hesitation was personal: the notion of deceit was foreign to Audrey.

Unlike the majority of her peers, she had never lied to her mother, Lavinia. Granted there had been numerous opportunities, but Audrey just didn’t see the point in it. During the few times they’d disagreed on something, Lavinia had never pulled rank. None of that “It’s my way, or the highway” crap, and certainly no guilt trips.

Instead, they’d talk things through and usually came to a compromise.

They even agreed on how Audrey should handle her relationship with Jeremy.

“Are you having sex?” Lavinia had asked her one day very nonchalantly.

Audrey shook her head slowly. “No… Not yet. But he’d like to.”

“Would you like that, too?”

“I’ve thought about it, yes.”

She would have felt guilty admitting this if it weren’t for Lavinia’s wistful smile. “Your first time making love is a special moment. But even more important than desire or passion you’re feeling is the issue of trust. When the person you love has earned your trust, then the time will be right.”

Audrey let that sink in. Did she trust Jeremy? For the most part, yes. At least she wanted to believe that, but it wasn’t always easy to do. For one thing, he liked to flirt with other girls. For another, she’d heard him make several bald-faced lies to his parents. In fact, the whole reason they had driven over in his father’s car—a brand spanking new Ferrari F355 Spider—was because he’d told his dad that his own car had a faulty brake line.

“Why don’t you just tell him the truth,” she teased him, “that what you really want is to make the other guys jealous when they see you drive up in it?”

Jeremy graced her with a smug grin. “Because that would piss him off. Besides, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“I hope you don’t say that about me, behind my back.”

He said nothing but gave her the same tightlipped smile he’d just given his father as they’d waved off.

That, and then he kissed her hard as if that would relieve her of any doubts.

Love means never having to tell a lie, thought Audrey.

Oh my God! That’s it!

From that point on, the essay flowed out of her:

It’s easy to tell a lie. You can validate doing so by telling yourself that those you lie to can’t handle the truth, or that what they don’t know won’t hurt them, or that in fact, you’re saving them a lot of pain.

But the reality is that, yes, your loved ones can handle it. You have to trust them to do so, just like they trust you not to lie to them. Wouldn’t it hurt them much more should they discover that you didn’t give them the benefit of your doubt? 

If you’re really worried about their pain, first think about the devastated looks on their faces when they realize that you didn’t trust them to understand the truth.

Trust needs truth.

So does love.

Audrey fairly tossed her paper at the test monitor. She couldn’t wait to tell Jeremy how well she’d done.

* * *

Jeremy wasn’t in the auditorium’s lobby waiting for her, or even out in front of it. Finally, she found him: in his father’s Ferrari—or, more accurately, rocking the car with some big-breasted harlot.

Audrey recognized the girl because she’d sighed throughout the essay test when she wasn’t sucking on her Number 2 pencil. She had also cut out early from the English test. The frown on the girl’s face indicated she’d be retaking it at a later date.

It suddenly dawned on Audrey that she’d seen the girl a week before:  on SI’s cheering squad during a home game with AA. The girl was easy to remember because, invariably, the timing on her jumps was off.

In hindsight, Audrey reasoned, that might have been deliberate. It got the crowd to notice her.

The players saw her, too. The very first thing they noticed was that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Like now.

Or for that matter, panties.

As Audrey watched Jeremy’s ass cheeks rise and fall in unison with his paramour’s squeaky yelps of orgiastic pleasure, she stumbled through all five stages of heartbreak:

    Denial (maybe that wasn’t Jeremy, but some other guy who’d stolen his keys; but no, she’d recognize his Ashbury Academy letter jacket over that bare ass anywhere);

    Anger (how DARE he do it—and with a pea-brained tart, no less!);

    Bargaining (obviously it was a hormonal lapse of judgment! And, besides, she’d already allowed him to get only as far as third base. Granted, whenever he’d attempted to go for a home run she’d slapped his hand away, or worse yet murmured some seemingly offhanded teen pregnancy statistic—but still… )

    Depression: Had her prudishness pushed him away? If only he’d give her a second chance, she’d… She’d what? Give in to his begging? Why do so when her love obviously meant so little to him? Was this how it was to be with her future relationships with men?

– Finally, there was acceptance: Jeremy wasn’t hers anymore. He now belonged to some double-jointed cheerleader who would use him to tutor her for her next shot at the SATs.

And he’d enjoy every minute of it.

Audrey wondered how long Jeremy had known the girl. Not that he’d tell her the truth if she were to ask him. Even if he did, what would it matter? The bottom line was that her relationship with him was a joke; a total sham.

No, worse: it was a lie.

I guess the testers will laugh when they read my essay, thought Audrey. They’ll think I’m just a stupid, naïve little girl.

Well, I guess I am.

She felt like running all the way home, but she knew that if she left now, she’d be forfeiting the second and third portions of the test, and that would ruin her score.

Nothing was more important than that. Certainly not some horny boy.

At least none of this had happened in front of Lavinia. Her mother would have insisted that addressing her heartache was more important than anything, including the test.

Considering her role as founder and head of school at Ashbury Academy, it was an odd stance, but that was Lavinia for you. Feelings mattered most.

* * *

When Audrey told her friend, Tallulah Blue, about Jeremy’s desertion—more to the point, with whom Jeremy had two-timed her with—her friend had laughed so hard that she spewed her latte.

“Ha,” said Tallulah, “I guess that proves the adage, ‘Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder—of someone willing to give it up.’”

Audrey shifted uncomfortably on her stool. “The saying is ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ and it has nothing to do with sex.”

Tallulah snorted. “Trust me, little virgin, abstinence has everything to do with sex.”

“No, what I mean was… Just never mind.” It was useless to argue semantics with Tallulah, or anything else, for that matter. Lavinia called Tallulah “an old soul,” which, to Audrey’s mind, was just a polite way of saying that she spoke her mind on anything and everything, whether she knew she was talking about or not.

Jeremy had always called her a blowhard. She was too loyal to her friend to let him know she agreed with him.

Thinking about him made her tear up again.

Seeing this, Tallulah growled, “He’s lucky I wasn’t there. I would have tossed a brick through that Ferrari’s windshield.”

Audrey had no doubt about that. Tallulah had a horrible temper. She’d gotten away with a lot of crap because of her mother’s fame: she was Maggie Wishart, the sultry lead singer for Chameleon, one of the legendary rock bands that had gotten its start during San Francisco’s infamous Summer of Love.

At that very moment, Audrey vowed to stay a virgin forever.

Or to at least date grown rational men, as opposed to horny pubescent boys who wore their pants belted below their hips as if showing the top half of their boxer briefs were sexy or something.

By, say twenty-five, she reasoned, any hormone-induced frenzy would have subsided, along with the urge to drop trou in public, let alone to lie to the woman he loved.

* * *

As fate would have it, the very next day Egan Gable, with his crisply creased khaki pants belted at his waist, came into her life.

The opening day of Ashbury Academy’s fall term was still two weeks away, but Audrey, who was to be a senior that year, had made up her mind that she wasn’t going to stay home and mope. Better to keep busy by helping out around the school. Since Lavinia was AA’s headmistress, Audrey was well aware that there was always some task in need of someone’s immediate attention. And because Clare, Lavinia’s assistant, had extended her Mexico vacation through tomorrow, she knew Lavinia would welcome her help.

Egan had arrived early for his interview with Lavinia. He was applying for a position as the instructor of AA’s Advanced Placement course called Shakespeare’s influence on 19th Century Literature. Unbeknownst to him, he was the one and only candidate for the position, and that made him a shoo-in—if he lived up to the curricula vitae he’d faxed over just the day before.

Audrey, who had just finished conducting a tour of the school with a prospective student and his parents, saw by the lit button on Clare’s phone console that Lavinia was still fielding calls from parents preparing for the new school year. She smiled apologetically to Egan and then pointed toward the chairs backed against Administration Office’s large bay window.

Egan took the hint: prospective students and their parents came first.

Noting that the coffeemaker on the sideboard was still on, he poured himself a cup. But before settling into one of the reception room’s folding chairs, he grabbed an old and well-thumbed copy of Utne Reader from the large coffee table, which was, in fact, the stump of a Redwood tree.

“‘Magic circles are mandatory.’ What the hell does that mean?” The applicant’s father, Mr. Siler, who had been reading the admissions brochure, hadn’t even realized he’d muttered his question out loud until his wife nonchalantly took his hand in hers and proceeded to pierce his palm with a French-tipped nail. Audrey knew this by the man’s pained wince.

Nevertheless, he took the hint: Shut your yap! Don’t blow this for Seth. And keep it that way. At least until he had been officially accepted into the school.

To Audrey’s mind, that was certainly still up in the air, considering that Seth—tatted up high above the collar of his Mötley Crüe tee shirt, and sporting a nose ring to boot—had been a total pain in the ass throughout the tour. For his parents’ sake, Audrey had pretended not to notice.

“A magic circle is how students here at the academy resolve conflicts,” she explained. “You see, a river stone is passed around. Whoever has it is allowed to express their concerns or feelings. We find it quite effective in inspiring open debate amongst the students.”

Her tone was gentle enough to use on a five-year-old, let alone a master of the universe such as Mr. Siler. He wasn’t the type to appreciate the historical relevance of the custom, which, if the truth were known, had more to do with Lavinia’s misspent youth on a commune in Mendocino County and the potency of the psychedelic mushrooms that grew under the mammoth Sequoias that grew there. Had this been divulged, Mrs. Siler might not have been so pushy about Seth’s acceptance.

“They told us on the phone that the AA does have an opening for another senior in this year’s class. Is that right?” Mrs. Siler asked anxiously. Noting Audrey’s nonchalant nod, her quivering smile finally steadied itself. “That’s good to know.”

“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what gives?” asked Mr. Siler. “I mean, it seems as if every other school has a waitlist. And the tuition at the others runs a third higher than Ashbury’s.”

He had every right to be suspicious. According to their application, the Silers were recent transplants from Seattle, where he’d been one of The Chosen Ones: a Microsoft senior tech executive. From Seth’s attitude toward his last school, Audrey gleaned that his teachers hadn’t appreciated his study habits. Surely the corporate largess that came with his father’s connections more than compensated for that.

But the Silers were in Apple country now. In fact, the city was rife with deep-pocketed corporate donors: not just Apple, but also Gap, Pacific Telesis, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. The rosters of other schools were already filled with the progeny of their management staffs. This hot list included Charles Schwab, where Mr. Siler had just been hired to head up its fast-growing tech support division. If by some quirk of fate a student slot suddenly opened up, the first call would be put out to a corporate wonk whose company was underrepresented at that school. Why not bring one more industrial titan into the fold and help spread the wealth?

So yes, Ashbury Academy might just be the Silers’ last hope, even if they didn’t yet realize this.

What they couldn’t know was that the school needed Seth just as badly as he needed it.

Ashbury Academy was just four years old. Lavinia had worked hard to keep the school more affordable than the city’s other private schools. Her vision was that the school would appeal to parents much like herself: those who, for whatever reason, were disappointed with the public schools but felt that the privates were too structured or unduly influenced by the whims of the parents as opposed to the needs of the students.

In fact, half the students at Ashbury were on either full or partial scholarships.

Because of this philosophy, AA had yet to build its reputation among those whose corporate connections or old family money might fund its mission.

Despite this, Audrey had perfected a sales pitch that encouraged suspicious parents to think otherwise. “Ashbury Academy has a few select openings because Lavinia and her staff have devised a curriculum model that is grounded in the essentials while remaining fluid. For example, we have several students who excel in the performing arts or have a unique facility for science and math. As such, they are often presented with unique learning opportunities outside the realm of the typical classroom environment. So, should particularly a promising student cross the school’s threshold, AA’s fluid student body model allows for him to be accommodated.”

Her choice of pronoun was deliberate.

Audrey immediately segued into a usually well-received selling point: the respect she had for the school’s instructors. “Lavinia only hires those who’ve had actual hands-on applied experience in their subjects,” she explained. “That way, students are taught by someone with innate knowledge and a genuine passion for it.”

“You mean, the sex-ed teacher was once a porn star?” Seth smirked. “Awesome! Does she tutor on the side?”

Hearing this, Egan choked on his coffee.

Audrey’s smile suddenly set into a grimace. She hated the boy for making her sound silly.

No way will Lavinia let him into our school—

Oh, who am I kidding, Audrey thought. This Neanderthal’s daddy just got hired by Schwab, and he’s offering to pay full tuition. Provided the jerk isn’t an arsonist, she’ll let him in, if only to cover the new teacher’s salary.

Seth’s jibe was rude enough to make Mr. Siler look up from the school brochure and give his son a warning glance.

Little good that did. Seth smirked and rolled his eyes.

If Audrey had to guess, she was willing to bet that the sealed envelope holding his transcripts would reflect eleven years of mediocre grades. So why should he give a damn if he were accepted or not?

Seth may have given up, but obviously, his parents hadn’t. It was natural to assume they’d already heard the horror stories about the San Francisco public schools from Mr. Siler’s new co-workers. The scuttlebutt: if you couldn’t get your child into the public school’s crown jewel, Lowell (and no one could; not with a waiting list that was, perpetually, four years long) you had no choice but to cough up the bucks for private school.

San Francisco’s more prestigious non-sectarian private high schools–University, Lick-Wilderming, the Lycée Francais, not to mention Urban just a few blocks away—had numerous students waitlisted for each class. Even without the tattoos, nose stud, and bad attitude, Seth Siler would have a hard time finding a slot.

That is unless it turned out that Seth was a legacy or a sibling.

And the Silers were willing to donate a new wing.

No, the Silers were just as desperate to get into Ashbury as Lavinia should be to have them.

Resigned to this reality, Audrey glided toward the large double door marked HEAD OF SCHOOL. “Lavinia is off the phone now. Why don’t I knock and see if she’s available?”

* * *

Because it was his first time at Ashbury Academy, Egan wasn’t aware that the pretty young brunette with the big gray eyes and dimples on both sides of her mouth wasn’t named Clare, despite the placard that sat front and center on the school’s reception desk.

Nor had it occurred to him that she was only seventeen years old.

And why should it? AA’s receptionist was emboldened with a solemn maturity that belied her years.

Her sad luminous eyes didn’t dart away with the giddiness found in most teenaged girls. No Madonna-esque corset peeked out from under a sheer blouse or denim jacket, no short flouncy skirt over fishnet stockings, no Doc Martens. Instead, she wore a long fitted black cashmere sweater over black slacks and ballet slippers: sensible for a traditionally chilly August day in San Francisco. Her hair wasn’t big and frowsy, but straight and angled with the sides cut bluntly even at her ears, and bangs that stopped just above her naturally arched brows.

“Zelda,” Egan murmured, just loud enough for her to hear him.

She looked up to find him gazing admiringly at her

“I’m sorry. I was admiring your, er, hair,” he explained.

Obviously, she knew the reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife because her dimples deepened again.

He had accomplished his goal.

He could see that she was struggling with a comeback, but before she could get it out the phone rang, giving her the perfect excuse to ignore him again.

What she didn’t know was that he enjoyed eavesdropping on her because it gave him an inkling of what he was getting himself into. By the lecture she delivered, he presumed it was a parent new to the school’s procedures: “No, students do not wear uniforms here, because Lavinia feels that how we choose to dress on any given day is part of a student’s creative process.” After a pause, she rolled her eyes in disgust, adding, “No, upper class-persons will not be allowed to go off campus for lunch. The food choices are less than desirable here in the Haight—”

Albeit the drug choices on every street corner of the ‘hood are second to none, Egan thought to himself. This brought a slight smile to his lips.

Seeing it, Audrey smiled too and then held the phone away from her ear so that he also could hear the concern in the parent’s petulant voice. When it finally broke off, she responded, “No, you’ve been misinformed. The traditional senior trip is not Lake Como, but Mono Lake . . . Yes, well again, the whole point isn’t ‘culture,’ but self-discovery. The students separate and live on their own for three days… Accommodations? They take sleeping bags and camp under the stars! No, sorry, Lavinia would never consider Rome, Paris, or Madrid instead! . . . Why? Because if you can’t find yourself in the middle of nowhere, what are the chances you’ll find it anywhere else?” She moved to slam down the phone, but at the very last moment, she resisted the impulse. She murmured good-bye and gently placed the receiver in its cradle.

He waited until their eyes met, then smiled. “I for one found myself in Paris. If you’d allow me, I’d show you where.”

* * *

My God …he’s flirting with me!

Egan Gable’s offer left Audrey speechless. Perhaps this was for the best because just then Lavinia opened her door to usher the Silers back into the reception area.

Noting the frowns on all their faces, Audrey closed her eyes, relieved.

Good, she thought. Ashbury may be poor, but it’s pure, too. That’s what makes us so different. So special.

That, and the fact that the school only exists because Lavinia created it for me.

As if reading her mind, Lavinia met her gaze with a wide smile.

In that singular moment, Audrey vowed to live her life just as her mother had.

No lies. No secrets.

And I’ll always put my children first.

* * *

Egan’s polite cough broke the trance between them.

Lavinia looked over. “Oh, there you are,” she exclaimed. “Egan Gable, am I right?”

Her smile now embraced him like a warm ray of sunshine. He’d already recognized her from the photo collages that adorned the students’ lockers flanking the wide hallway leading to her office. She’d been front and center in many of the pictures. That same grin, shared with the students who embraced her in the photos, was also reflected on their faces.

Noting Lavinia’s obvious delight in his presence, Egan relaxed a bit. “And you must be Ms. Thorpe!” He stood and shook her extended hand. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Call me Lavinia. Everyone does, even the students. Even my daughter. In fact, Audrey is one of our seniors this year.” Lavinia glanced over the woman behind the desk.

No—the girl.

Egan couldn’t help but stare. He was embarrassed for having missed the resemblance between the two. In his defense, there were enough variations–in their physical looks, their mannerisms—to throw him off. For example, the daughter was more slender, the mother taller. There were also the slight nuances that came with an age difference of thirty years or more. Although not yet fifty, already the skin had pillowed out around Lavinia’s chin line, and a delicate web of wrinkles had formed at the corner of her eyes. But what had thrown him off even more than Lavinia’s long prematurely graying curls or her colorful mode of dress was her ecstatically cheerful demeanor.

It was the antithesis of her daughter’s quiet reserve.

She’s Mary Poppins for the Brat Pack, he marveled. Okay, yeah, I can dig it.

Noting his surprise, Lavinia said to Audrey, “Dear, do you think you’ll finish inputting those new class schedules into the computer before Clare returns tomorrow?”

Audrey glanced at the clock on the wall. “Oh, I’d say I’d be done by the end of the day, no problem.” She shuffled the pink phone messages into a neat stack and handed them to Lavinia. “By the way, thus far five parents have called begging that we reconsider the senior trip to Mono Lake.” She was looking at her mother, but her sly smile was meant for Egan. “The overwhelming consensus is Paris.”

Egan could feel the blood draining from his face. Great, he thought. I almost got caught coming on to Lavinia Thorpe’s underage daughter! Talk about blowing a pretty decent meal ticket…

But she is adorable.

Lavinia sighed. “For many of the seniors, that would be their second or third trip to the City of Light. They’d be bored! The parents never seem to understand that the sole purpose of the senior trip is to—”

“Find yourself,” Audrey and Egan said it in unison.

“Yes—exactly!” Lavinia looked from one to the other before scrutinizing Egan carefully.

He stared back innocently. He hoped she took it to mean that, instinctively, he understood their mission; that he got what they were all about, there at the academy.

At least, what she was all about. After all, Lavinia Thorpe was AA.

As he followed her into the office, she shut the door behind him…

(c) 2019 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.
This excerpt is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press. (signaleditorial@gmail.com)

 

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