serves. Grilled steaks and Blazing Saddles.”

In June I’d blown off my eyebrows trying to light the grill. I hadn’t started the evil thing since, and Marina knew it. She also knew I wasn’t a Mel Brooks fan. “Peanut butter and jelly and Dr. Zhivago.”

As Marina crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, a gavel banged down. I jumped and started the tape recorder.

“This meeting will come to order.” Erica Hale, the PTA’s silver-haired president, peered out at the audience over half glasses. “I’d like everyone to welcome our newly installed secretary, Beth Kennedy.” Polite applause sprinkled through the room, punctuated by Marina’s fist thrust and earsplitting whistle. My cheeks flamed hot, and I shuffled papers that didn’t need shuffling.

Erica went on. “As some of you might remember, our former secretary and her family moved to Belize, and Beth has graciously agreed to donate her time and services.”

I blinked and mouthed the word to Marina. “Belize?” I’d heard of people vacationing in and retiring to Belize, but moving there? With young children? That was far outside my comfort zone—about two thousand miles outside.

Marina shrugged.

“With the committee’s permission,” Erica said, “I’d like to rearrange tonight’s agenda. We have a guest who has another commitment, and I’d like to move action item number one to the beginning of the meeting.”

I glanced at the agenda, but before I could locate the action items, Erica requested a voice vote approving the change. “Ayes?” Erica asked. The other committee members said aye. “Nays?”

I found the action items. Number three was putting allergy warnings on bake sale goods. Number two was buying an automated snow-day notification system. Number one was . . . “Uh-oh,” I said.

“Was that a nay vote?” Erica frowned at me.

“Uh, no.” I picked up a pen, circled the pertinent item, drew an arcing line up to the top of the agenda, and ended it with an arrow. “I’m fine with the change. Sorry.”

Erica nodded and looked at the back of the room. “Agnes? You have the floor.”

Twenty-odd members of the PTA were in the audience, and every one of them twitched as Erica said the name “Agnes.” As if choreographed, all heads turned to watch the fiftyish Agnes Mephisto, principal of Tarver Elementary, walk to the front of the room. Topped by a haircut that even I knew had gone out of style years ago, Agnes’s body had an unfortunate resemblance to a fire hydrant. She walked with solid steps and planted herself directly in front of me. I had an excellent view of her back and her long, overpermed hair.

“Good evening, PTA members!” Agnes’s voice was piercing at a distance. At point-blank range, it was all I could do not to cover my ears. “I have outstanding news for you, for our community, but most of all for the wonderful students of Tarver Elementary.” There was a smile in her voice, and I was just as glad not to see it. Agnes had a weasel-like cast to her face, a resemblance that grew even more pronounced when she smiled. Luckily, that didn’t happen often. “I’m sure,” she said, “that everyone will be as excited about this project as I am.”

I leaned to the left to look around Agnes. Excitement wasn’t the word I would have used to describe the crowd’s emotions, not if the crossed arms and stone faces were any indication. In the ten years she’d been principal at Tarver, Agnes had alienated a host of parents and encouraged more than one teacher to take early retirement. Only the school board seemed to like her. “Test scores are up,” Mack Vogel, the superintendent, had said when he’d stopped by the store the day before. He also said he hoped that, as the new PTA secretary, I’d ease tensions with Agnes. “You’re the conciliatory sort, Beth. Calm and peaceful.” He’d given me a hearty handshake. “You’ll do a great job of cooling tempers.”

Right. I raised my eyebrows and tried to catch Marina’s eye, but she was too busy scowling.

“We’re entering a new age,” Agnes said, “and I can’t stand by and see Tarver Elementary left behind. I can see exactly what we need, and I know you’ll agree with me.”

Not a head nodded. I sneaked a look down the committee table. No one there was nodding, either.

“This school needs better facilities,” Agnes said. “I want our children to have a larger library. I want more computers and more books. And our children need more exposure to music. Have any of your kids ever seen an opera?” She looked at the cold expressions. “I didn’t think so. Children need artistic stimulation. They need to play instruments. They need to paint and draw and sing. And they need pets. They need to—”

“Agnes.” Erica drummed her arthritic fingertips on the table. In years past, PTAs had consisted of parents and teachers, but the Tarver PTA had conceded the need to expand its membership and had allowed grandparents to join. “A well-rounded education is one of Tarver’s missions,” Erica said. “That isn’t up for debate. Could you please get to the point?” She gave the clock hanging over the classroom door a hard look.

The female fireplug swelled in all directions, and I shrank back. Stories of a shouting and sputtering Agnes were legendary, but I had no wish to see or hear the reality. The swelling went down, and Agnes settled back on the balls of her feet. “Of course, Erica.” Her shoulders rose and fell slightly. “I’ve been notified that a benefactor is willing to make a large donation to Tarver Elementary.”

Agnes talked over the low buzz of conversation that circled the room. “The benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous, is happy with my suggestion for an addition to the school building.”

The buzz grew to a dull roar.

“Who is it?” called a woman from the back of the room.

“Anonymous means anonymous, CeeCee,” Agnes said. “The benefactor’s name won’t be made public. Our secret donor is eager to get started, so I’ve hired an architect to—”

“You did what?” A young father in the back row tried to stand, but his wife dragged him back down.

“I’ve hired an architect,” Agnes repeated. “With my guidance, this addition should—”

Your guidance?” A blowsy woman grabbed the back of the chair in front of her and heaved herself up. “What about our guidance?”

Another woman stood. “What about the taxpayers?”

“Since this is a donation,” Agnes said smoothly, “there will be no bond issue. The taxpayers needn’t be consulted.”

The room exploded into sudden sound.

“You can’t—”

“Of all the high-handed—”

“Just because you’re principal doesn’t mean you can—”

I laid down my pen. How does a secretary take minutes of a free-for-all? I watched the wheels of the recorder spin and hoped there’d be enough tape.

“Where on earth have you been?”

“Ahh!” Everything I was carrying cascaded to the kitchen floor. “Richard!” I put a hand to my chest. Yes, my heart was still beating. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you to get home so my children wouldn’t be left unattended.”

I took a deep breath—then another. Frights like that couldn’t be good for you. “Why isn’t your car in the driveway?”

“Since I don’t know which side of the garage you use, I parked in front.”

The house was on a corner lot. “A choice corner lot,” the real estate agent had said when we’d toured the place. Choice of what? I’d asked. Richard had chuckled, but I hadn’t been trying to be funny.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “The kids sleep at your place on Wednesdays.”

“I have to leave at six for an emergency meeting in Chicago.” He looked at his watch. “That’s in six and a half hours. I left messages at your store and here and on your cell phone. Why you didn’t call me back, I can’t imagine.”

I could, but imagination wasn’t one of Richard’s strong suits.“Are you going to be back for the weekend?” I asked. “The kids are looking forward to carving pumpkins.”

“Yes, I know.” He picked his coat up from a kitchen chair. “What’s all this?” He gestured at the floor, now covered with PTA paraphernalia. I explained my new role and he chuckled, using the same patronizing frequency that had incited divorce proceedings. “Marina talked you into it, didn’t she? Not a bad idea. You need to get out more.”

Вы читаете Murder at the PTA (2010)
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