When I get back home, I’m ordered to sit down and watch a performance by Annie and Mia. Given that I’ve been gone less than thirty minutes, the dance is truly amazing. Mia moves with the bone-snapping precision of a girl in a hip-hop video, which doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve seen her do the same as a cheerleader at St. Stephen’s football and basketball games. What amazes me is Annie. She’s only nine years old, yet she mimics Mia’s moves as though she’s wired to the older girl’s brain. She doesn’t quite have Mia’s precision, but the flexibility and rhythm are there. It’s only a matter of practice. Her mother was a great dancer, too, and even after five years, the memory brings a lump to my throat. When they finish dancing, I jump to my feet, yelling and clapping in approval. Annie glows with pride, and Mia watches her with real affection.
“Bath time,” Mia says, doing a quick sequence of moves to keep Annie’s attention.
“Aww,” Annie moans. “I’m clean!”
“That’s bull!” says Mia, laughing. “We just sweated two gallons, at least. Your armpits are already stinky. I smell them from here.”
Annie sniffs cautiously beneath her left arm. “Uh- uh.”
“Uh- huh.Get going, Stinky!”
Annie giggles and then cartwheels into the hall. “Will you still be here when I get out?”
Mia shakes her head. “I’ve got way too much homework to stick around here. I’m gone as soon as your dad pays me.”
“Are you coming back tomorrow?”
Mia looks at me.
“Absolutely,” I tell them, knowing I’m bound to be caught up in Drew’s mess, whether I want to be or not.
As Annie’s footsteps fade down the hall, Mia takes a seat on the ottoman in front of my chair and pulls the elastic band from her ponytail. Dark hair cascades around her shoulders. She puts the band between her teeth and shakes her head, then gathers her hair again and binds it into a looser ponytail.
“I talked to Stephanie James,” she says. “She’s one of the girls who got questioned by the grand jury. She said the D.A. didn’t use Dr. Elliot’s name at first. He kept asking if Kate had ever confided anything to Stephanie about an ’older man.‘ After Stephanie said no about ten times, Johnson got really aggressive. He acted like she knew about the affair but was holding back on purpose. Stephanie said she actually started crying. She also said she knew several people sitting in the chairs out there. The grand jury members. Some of them were St. Stephen’s parents.”
“Is it bad?”
“Oh, it’s bad.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. But you’ve been a huge help already.”
“I don’t feel like I have. Dr. Elliott’s in trouble, and I really like him. He helped me with my science fair project last year. He was really nice.”
I start to ask if she ever sensed any improper attention from Drew, but then I decide against it. As if reading my mind, Mia says, “No, I never got a hint of weirdness from him. I never even caught him looking at my butt, which most older guys do every time I turn around.”
I can’t help but laugh at Mia’s awareness of the reaction her body causes in men. I’ve admired her derriere myself on occasion. “You told me you’ve heard mixed reactions about Drew and Kate. Tell me about that.”
“Well, from the parents it’s all bad, of course. They blame him totally for the affair. Some of them say Kate always looked old for her age-and acted a lot older-but they say that’s no excuse.”
“But the kids are different?”
Mia tilts a flattened hand back and forth to indicate ambivalence. “The girls, mostly. The guys are calling him a perv and talking all kinds of shit about what they ought to do to him. But the girls understand it.”
She smiles to herself. “I think a lot of them have fantasized about doing the same thing Kate did.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hell, yeah. Make out with a hot guy like Dr. Elliott?”
“But he’s twenty years older than they are!”
“So?” Mia looks genuinely puzzled.
“So…I don’t know.” Ellen Elliot’s words come back to me in a rush:These girls aren’t like the girls I went to school with… “You tell me.”
“I think you’d be surprised at what we talk about,” Mia says with a sly smile.
Water gurgles through the pipes in the wall. Annie has started her bath. “For instance?”
“Um…the hot dads list.”
“The hot dads list. That’s the fathers of kids at St. Stephen’s who still rank as hot.”
I shake my head in wonder. “Who keeps this list?”
“The senior girls, mostly. Some juniors. It’s not written down or anything. Just something we talk about. Dads we’d hook up with if we got the chance.”
“And Drew was on this list?”
“The very top.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re on it, too.”
My face reddens.
“I’m not saying you’re on my list,” she says with an apologetic smile. “But I’ve heard a lot of girls name you.”
“And these girls think it was okay for Drew to be sleeping with Kate?”
“Pretty much. I mean, Kate wasn’t going to be with some high school boy, anyway. If Dr. Elliott was unhappy-and anybody who knows his wife knows he had to be-then what happens is what happens, you know? It’s natural.”
“Adultery is natural?”
Mia shrugs. “It is to these girls. Half of them come from broken homes. More than half, probably.”
God, what have we come to?
“And the guys are only acting so pissed because they’re scared,” Mia goes on. “They know they can’t possibly compete with a guy like Dr. Elliott, even on their own primitive level. I mean, look what he did to the jocks who tried to beat him up. So they say he’s pervy and all. But every one of those guys would do that or worse if they thought they could get away with it. So would the fathers who are trash-talking Dr. Elliott. Some of the most self-righteous of those guys give me looks that totally creep me out when I run by them in tight shorts. They practically drool on me.”
I’m not even sure I want to know more at this point. The girls defending Drew aren’t doing so on the basis of forgiving human frailty; they’re saying you can’t blame a guy for doing something most other men would do if given the same chance. Morality doesn’t even come into it. “What do you think about Kate and Drew?”
Mia bites her lip and takes some time to think. “It makes me sad for Timmy.”
“Do you know him?”
“Yeah. He’s a sweet kid, he really is. And his life is going tosuck for a while.”
For some reason, my mind jumps off track to one of the phone calls I got this afternoon. “What do you know about Marko Bakic?”
Mia’s face closes almost instantly. “Why do you ask?”
“His name has come up in connection with some things.”
“What kind of things?”
She nods almost imperceptibly.
“Are you nodding because you know Marko’s involved in drugs?”
“Just keep talking. I’ll answer what I can.”
What the hell?“Do you know anything about a rave party out at Lake St. John last night?”
“Were you there?”
She looks at her fingernails. “Maybe.”
“Was there a lot of Ecstasy there?”
“There could have been.”
“What about LSD? See any of that?”
Mia draws her legs up beneath her and sits Indian-style on the ottoman. She’s wearing loose gym shorts over a skintight Nike running suit. With her careful expression, she looks like someone judging a gymnastics competition.
“In what capacity are you asking these questions?” she asks with a strange formality. “Is it just for your personal interest? Or are you asking as a member of the school board?”
I’m not sure myself.“A concerned parent, let’s say. I know something about X and LSD from my work in Houston. And I’m getting the feeling that I need to know more about Marko Bakic, if I want to protect the students at St. Stephen’s.”
Mia slowly shakes her head. “I can’t say much about that subject.”
“Why not? Are you afraid?”
Another long pause. “It wouldn’t be cool. A lot of people could get in trouble.”
“What’s your personal opinion of Marko?”
Her jaw muscles work beneath her tanned cheeks. “He’s a psycho. I’m serious, Penn, he’s completely amoral. Right and wrong don’t register in his mind. But he covers it well. He’s smooth. A lot of people think he’s fun.”
“But not you?”
“I think he’s a self-absorbed prick. I used to think he was fun. He had me snowed like the rest. Not now, though. I saw through him.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Mia gets to her feet and looks at me with her wide, dark eyes. “If you’re going after Marko, be careful.”
Her severe gaze unsettles me. “What do you know, Mia? It sounds like I need to hear it.”
“Marko’s not like the rest of us, okay? We’re soft. American. Marko grew up in a war zone. His root directory is fucked up. That’s all I know to say. And he hangs with some bad people. If you’re going to mess with him at all, you want somebody like Dr. Elliott around. Somebody who can get radical if things get out of hand.”
“Understood. Tell me, have you ever heard of Cyrus White?”
She mulls over the name. “No. Who is he?”
“A drug dealer. Don’t ask around about him. I’m serious, okay? He’s not a Nancy Drew project.”
Mia looks offended. “I know when to talk and when to shut up.”
She takes her CD out of the boom box and walks past me to the door.
“I haven’t paid you yet,” I remind her.
“You can catch up tomorrow.” She reaches for the doorknob, then looks back at me. “I heard Ellen Elliott freaked out. Is she really dumping her husband’s shit all over the lawn?”
I shrug noncommittally.
“I also heard you were over there.”
The cell phones of Mia and her friends are like native drums on a Pacific island. Every significant event is instantly known by the tribe.
“I guess Ellen thinks he did it, huh?” she asks.
“Got Kate pregnant, for one thing.”
I close my eyes in dismay. If this is public knowledge already, Drew is so screwed, it’s beyond belief.
Mia says, “Do you think Ellen believes her husband killed Kate?”
“Of course not.”
“Some people are going to think that.”
“Except for the pathologist finding two guys’ stuff inside her, right? That makes it more complicated.”
“Jesus, Mia, is there anything you don’t know?”
“Not much.” She gives me a sad smile. “Sometimes I wish I knew a lot less than I do. I wonder what that would be like.”
“They say ignorance is bliss.”
“Not ignorance. Innocence. That’s what I was talking about. Innocence.”
Mia sighs, then passes through the door to the street.