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The Sixes

A Novel

Kate White

Dedication

To Seth Holbrook

Stepson Extraordinaire

1

SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT. She sensed it as soon as she began to walk across the quad that night. The weather was practically balmy, weird for late October, and yet the air carried the pungent smell of wood smoke. But that wasn’t the reason things seemed strange to her. It was the deserted pathways. Though Phoebe wasn’t really used to the place yet, she expected to find more than just a few people crossing campus at eight o’clock on a Friday night.

She’d veered left, planning to exit through the eastern gate, when with a start she discovered where everyone was. About forty people—both students and faculty—were congregated in front of Curry Hall. In the two months she’d been at Lyle College, she’d noticed that kids often relaxed outside this particular dorm, tossing Frisbees or lolling on the slope of the balding lawn, but tonight everyone was standing, their arms folded and their backs stiff, as if poised for news.

As she drew closer, she saw what was drawing their attention: two campus police, as well as a local town cop, were speaking to an auburn-haired girl who appeared to be fighting back tears. The dean of students—Tom something—was there, too, head lowered and listening intently to the girl.

Phoebe’s first reaction was to just keep moving. There were things she needed to do in Pennsylvania, but getting involved in someone else’s drama wasn’t one of them.

She started to walk away and then stopped. She knew that ten minutes later she’d regret not finding out what all the fuss was about.

She edged back toward the crowd and sidled up next to two young men on the fringe, who also looked like they’d just stopped to check out the action.

“What’s going on?” she asked the one closest to her. He glanced at her and shrugged.

“No idea—I just got here,” he said. He turned to the guy to his right, whose blond hair was closely cropped. “Any idea what’s up?” he asked.

“Not sure,” the other guy said, “but I think it has something to do with this girl named Lily Mack. That’s her roommate over there.”

Phoebe took a moment to process the name. It wasn’t someone in either of the two classes she taught.

“Thanks,” she said and snaked toward the front of the crowd, hoping to score more info there. A second later she realized she was now standing directly behind Val Porter, whose long, prematurely gray hair gleamed, even in the dark. Val was a women’s studies professor with an office just down the hall from the one Phoebe was squatting in this semester, and though on the surface Val was courteous enough, Phoebe had detected a mild disdain ever since their first encounter. Maybe, Phoebe had thought wryly, Val thinks I set the women’s movement back on its ass by my behavior.

Phoebe started to shift positions, not in the mood for a Val moment tonight. But uncannily the woman seemed to sense her presence, and she turned around. The movement stirred the scent of patchouli from Val’s skin.

“Hello, Phoebe,” Val said. There was a slightly disapproving tone to her voice, as if Phoebe had burst in late for an important meeting.

“Hi, Val,” she said pleasantly. Her MO at Lyle was to play nice, not create any unnecessary ripples. She’d had enough of those in her life this past year. “Is there some kind of problem?”

“A student is missing,” Val said bluntly. “Lily Mack—a junior. Her roommate reported it to the campus police a little while ago. No one’s seen her since last night.”

“How awful,” Phoebe said. The revelation caught her like the nick from a razor, and she found herself grabbing a breath. “Well, kids this age can be pretty irresponsible at times,” she said, recovering. “Is it possible she’s just gone off with a new boyfriend?”

Val gave her a withering look, suggesting that Phoebe didn’t know a damn thing about “kids this age.”

“Anything is possible, of course,” Val said dryly. “But according to Tom Stockton, she’s not the type to just go AWOL.”

“I take it someone’s called Glenda?” Phoebe asked, referring to Glenda Johns, the president of the college.

“Of course. This could get very, very messy.”

“How do you mean?” Phoebe asked.

“This girl’s boyfriend disappeared this past spring. He was a senior here, and he took off without a trace.”

“Do they—”

“Will you excuse me?” Val said abruptly. “I better check in with Tom and see if there’s anything he’d like me to do.”

It was more than a dismissal. It implied that Phoebe’s help wouldn’t be needed—ever.

“Good luck,” Phoebe said, keeping her voice even. “Let me know if I can do anything.”

Val started to turn but then looked back, giving Phoebe’s outfit the once-over. That’s rich, Phoebe thought. Val’s fashion style could only be described as high priestess meets seductress—lots of crushed velvet, jangling bracelets, and deeply scooped necklines—and yet she always eyed Phoebe’s clothes as if her fairly classic style didn’t pass muster.

“Doing something fun tonight?” Val asked in a tone that suggested she hoped the answer was no.

Phoebe was tempted to deliver a zinger, like, “Actually, I have a hot date with the captain of the men’s lacrosse team,” but that was precisely the kind of ripple-making she needed to avoid.

“Just grabbing a bite to eat,” she said instead. “ ’Night.”

Phoebe turned away and continued down the path across the quad, heading east once again. Lyle wasn’t exactly a gorgeous college. All the buildings were either nondescript red brick or concrete, without an inch of ivy

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