Driving up the curving entrance to St. Stephen’s Prep, I realize I’ve given Sonny Cross all the time I can afford. I voice-dial his cell phone as I park in front of the high school. He answers after five rings.
”It’s Penn, Sonny. It’s six p.m. I’m about to go into the board meeting. You have anything for me?“
A squawk like a muffled yell comes through my phone. A cutoff grunt follows.
”Soon,“ hisses Cross.
”Sonny? What the fuck was that?“
”Don’t know. Must be your cell phone. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.“
Something’s going down, but I don’t have time to press him on it. ”You’ve got nothing on Marko Bakic?“
”Right. As of now.“
”Don’t forget to call me.“
The St. Stephen’s boardroom looks just as it did on the night I learned Kate Townsend was dead. The ten faces gathered around the rosewood table are more than somber. It’s as though some catastrophic threat faces the entire town, and we are meeting to consider extreme responses. Holden Smith opened the meeting before I arrived, making it clear that my status in this group is now equivocal. Only the headmistress, Jan Chancellor, looks happy to see me arrive.
”Sit down, Penn,“ says Holden. ”Afraid we had to start without you.“
I sit but don’t respond.
Jan Chancellor says, ”The board has just scheduled a memorial service for Kate and Chris tomorrow.“
”The school gymnasium,“ says Holden. ”Chris was Methodist, but Kate was Presbyterian. And we wanted to do it during school hours. Better not to try to transport all the kids out to a church. We can do it right here.“
”Did you talk to Jenny Townsend about this?“
”I’m going to inform her as soon as the meeting’s over.“
Typical. As if the board’s decision should rule everyone else’s life. ”Okay. So why am I here?“
Holden’s voice takes on an almost feminine tone of irritation. ”The next order of business is the expulsion of Marko Bakic.“
”Expulsion and deportation,“ grunts Bill Sims. ”It’s time for that little bastard to go back where he came from.“
”On what grounds are you expelling him?“ I ask.
”They don’t really have anything specific,“ Jan informs me. ”Just a catalog of smaller infractions. Detention-type infractions.“
”Which I seem to remember he served detention for,“ I think aloud, noting Jan’s use of ”they.“
”Exactly,“ she says, turning to Holden and Bill. ”If you want to expel Bakic, you’re going to have to do it arbitrarily.“
”Fine,“ says Sims. ”He’s a damn Croatian. What can he do about it?“
”He can sue you and this school,“ I say in an even voice. ”Our insurance would cover it, but the publicity would eat us alive. You’d wake up every day and read the words ‘illegal drugs’ and ’St. Stephen’s Prep‘ in the same article.“
”He’s not even an American!“ blurts Smith.
”That makes no difference. The foreign prisoners being held at Guant'anamo are suing the federal government for unlawful imprisonment, among other things. American lawyers are lining up down there to represent them.“
”Bullcrap!“ Sims bellows. ”That’s just bull crap. That’s what’s wrong with this country.“
”No, that’s one of the things that’s right with it.“
Sims glares at me, then looks at Holden Smith as if to say, ”What the hell’s he doing here anyway?“
”I’ll tell you something else,“ I go on. ”You pulled the trigger too fast on Drew. The more I find out about Kate’s death, the more certain I am she was raped and murdered by someone else.“
”Who?“ asks someone down the table. ”That drug dealer mentioned in the paper?“
”I can’t discuss that here.“
”We’re in executive session,“ says Holden. ”No one’s keeping minutes. Nothing will leave this room.“
”That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. I don’t remember one sensitive topic discussed in this room that I didn’t hear about two days later from someone who shouldn’t have known a damned thing about it. Everyone in here talks out of school, to belabor the expression, and I’m not blowing Drew’s defense to hell to satisfy the curiosity of this group. I just want those of you who condemned Drew for murder the minute you heard about him and Kate to know you were wrong.“
”But he is guilty of the affair,“ insists Holden. ”Correct?“
”If he is, you know what that makes him?“
”As human as the rest of us.“
Holden looks genuinely hurt. ”Penn, you’re taking this personally. We all like Drew. We all respect him, apart from this, of course. But the damage that’s already been done to this school because of his involvement with Kate is incalculable. And what about the damage to Kate herself?“
”Honestly? I’m not sure how all that shakes out yet. What if Kate was already in deep trouble? What if Drew was a stabilizing influence in her life?“
”You’re saying that having sex with a forty-year-old man stabilized Kate’s life?“
”No. But being loved by him might have. Holden, the total tonnage of what we don’t know about these kids’ lives would sink an ocean liner.“
The board president blows out a stream of air like someone resigning himself to ambiguity. ”Penn, you obviously know a lot more about this situation than we do. What do you recommend?“
”Regarding Marko? Watch him closely, that’s it. If someone steps forward and says they saw him bring drugs to that lake party, that’s a different matter. A police matter. The lake party happened off school grounds, of course, but since it’s a criminal offense, I think we could justify immediate expulsion under our zero-tolerance policy. But so far, nobody’s come forward. And now that the Pinella kid has been beaten up, I doubt anyone will.“
”Was Marko responsible for that?“ asks a woman at the far end of the table.
”I don’t know, Jean. Look, even if Marko is selling drugs to our kids, he’s not the one bringing them into the city. Illegal drugs are an industry, and in this case they start down on the Gulf Coast and flow northward. Certain people here wholesale it to other people-possibly Marko-who then retail it to users, like a small number of our students. Marko’s only part of a very long chain. We don’t yet know who might have thought they had reason to beat up the Pinella boy.“
”But Marko is the link that most affects this school,“ Holden says. ”Until he showed up, we didn’t have a problem.“
”Not a visible problem. Every high school in America has a drug problem, Holden.“
”Should we test some of our students for Ecstasy and LSD?“ asks Sims, reviving an idea we killed months ago.
Now I’m losing my patience. ”Bill, if you’re worried about the school’s image, that idea is about as stupid as it was when you brought it up a couple of months ago.“
Sims reddens but doesn’t respond.
”What we need to do is calm down and let the police and the judicial system work. If you want Marko on a plane back to Croatia, you may get your wish sooner than you think.“
”What do you know?“ Holden asks eagerly.
”I know that the best thing we can do is let things take their course. Now, do you need me for anything else?“
Jan glances at Holden. ”Penn, we’d like you to remain on the board. This body was premature in asking you to step down.“
”I agree, Jan, but I can’t do that.“
”Are you officially Drew’s lawyer?“ asks Holden.
”I haven’t decided yet. But it makes no difference. This body has given up any moral right to leadership that it had before this crisis started. Most of you are here because you have your own private agendas, which may or may not be in the best interest of the school as a whole. One of our most distinguished and generous alumni is in trouble-he may soon be fighting for his life, in fact-and you abandoned him without even hearing his side of things. So, I bid you good night.“
I stand and walk to the door.
”Penn, wait!“ Holden calls.
”Let him go,“ snaps Sims. ”Goddamn bleeding heart lecturing us like that.“
As soon as I clear the door, I find myself jogging toward my car. My frustration is about to boil over. I climb in and start the car but leave the engine in Park. I’m not even sure where I should go now.
When my cell phone rings, I assume it’s Jan Chancellor trying to get me to return to the board meeting. But my caller ID saysSONNY CROSS. ”Sonny?“
”Yeah. Sorry I couldn’t talk before. I’ve got what you need now. Man, you’re not gonna believe it.“
”Marko, Cyrus, Kate…I understand everything now. And, boy, have I got something to help Drew.“
”Not on your life. Not on a cell phone.“
”Where are you?“
”My house. Beau Pr'e Road. You know where that is?“
”Yeah. What’s the house number?“
”I’ll be there in ten minutes.“ I pull into the southbound lane of Highway 61 and press the accelerator to the floor.