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Molly Masters Series

Death on a School Board

Death on a School Board

Chapter 1

Send in the Clones

This silence meant trouble. My usual loquaciousness came from a proud heritage, handed down from both sides of the family. Yet the three of us—my parents and I—had nothing to say to one another as we drove to the school board meeting.

What we now shared—in addition to this heavy silence—was a fear of the unknown. Plus the realization that my father's fate was no longer in his own hands, but rested on the red—painted lips of decidedly unbalanced Sylvia Greene, president of the Carlton school board.

Outside my car window, the leaves of the trees and shrubs were resplendent in their full array of autumnal colors, only partially cloaked by the darkness of evening. Normally, my parents would be leaving their home here in upstate New York to spend the winter in Florida. All that had changed last year when my father became so fed up with the sniping among school board members that he ran for a seat himself—and won.

I shifted my vision to the back of my father's head and smiled at a memory, now many years old, of when my children had drawn a happy face on his bald spot while he napped. Their peals of laughter had awakened him and alerted me to drop everything and run into the room, where I gasped at what Nathan and Karen had done....

My reverie switched to a fantasy, with me marching up to the front of the mini-auditorium that, even now, we were fast approaching. I would grab that fetid prune, Sylvia Greene, by the collar and shout, "You can't do this to Charlie Peterson, because he's my father! Because when my children drew a face on his scalp with Magic Marker, he just laughed and helped them add a mustache and a goatee. And because he's three times the human being you could ever hope to be!"

"Do you think she's bluffing?" my mother asked as we pulled into the parking lot of the Education Center.

"No, but all I can say is she's wrong about me," Dad answered. Mom had asked this question many times since Sylvia had threatened him at last month's meeting. "The most despicable thing I've done was to register as a Republican."

"Why did you do that, Dad?" Some of my best friends were Republicans, including my husband, but Dad had always been a staunch Democrat.

He glanced at me through the rearview mirror. The lines around his eyes and beneath his white eyebrows were deeply drawn. Even in the small view afforded by the mirror, it was clear what a toll this battle had taken on him. "I wanted to vote in their primaries. The courts must use their registration lists, though, because now I keep getting called to jury duty." He shut off the engine, then sat still, staring at the monolithic Ed Center, soon to become a lion's den. "Serves me right."

"Well, Dad," I said, "I guess if Sylvia does divulge that you registered as a Republican, we'll just have to relocate overseas. That is, if we can find a country that would accept us, despite your checkered past."

Dad sighed and patted my mother's shoulder. She was also in no hurry to leave the car. "Really, Linda, there are no illegitimate children or mistresses in my past. I've given her no cause to kick me off the board."

Mom ran her hand through her salt-and-pepper hair. "I believe you, Charlie. It's just that I'm afraid she'll make something up."

"Whatever happens, we'll deal with it. Together. Just like always." Resolved, the three of us got out of the car, but Dad immediately became distracted by the sight of the left front tire. "Linda? Why didn't you tell me the pressure in your tires was low? We could have taken my car instead."

I glanced at the tire in question and saw only that it appeared to be reasonably round.

Mom straightened and fired one of her patented icy stares in my father's direction. At nearly five-eleven, she could be intimidating and was slightly taller than my dad. He ignored her and, ever the mathematician, went on to say, "Under-inflated tires can cut down on your gas mileage by as much as one-and-a-half percent. All you had to do was—"

"I'll skip a couple of meals and make up for my wanton gasoline usage." She took Dad's arm. Heads held high, the two of them entered the lobby, while I deliberately lagged a step or two behind.

The hum of conversation from the crowd milling in the lobby came to an abrupt halt. They turned their faces away from my father, but not so far as to prevent furtive; sidelong glances. A middle-aged man, notepad in hand, rushed up.

"Mr. Peterson, have you decided to resign, or are you going to battle it out?"

"Hey," I interrupted, rushing over to step between him and my dad, "you're the reporter who eavesdropped on my private conversation at the grocery store the other day!"

"My quotes were accurate, Ms. Peterson," he said, his features tensing.

"The name is Masters. Molly Masters. I repeat. That was a private conversation. How was I supposed to know that the—" I resisted the urge to describe him as "silly-looking," though with his concave chest and pot belly, that's what came to mind. "—guy standing behind me in line was a newspaper reporter? My comments were never intended to be spread across the front page." In the meantime, as I'd hoped, my parents had continued into the auditorium and were safely beyond this muckraker's reach. "Besides which, my saying: 'Sylvia Greene should be shot' did not necessarily mean 'to death.' For all you knew, I could have meant a booster shot or a shot-put. Nor did you include the 'Amen to that,' which the grocery clerk said at least as loudly as my original statement."

His vision wandered partway through my tirade. "Excuse me," he muttered and rushed off to join the crowd that had formed as Her Highness Herself entered the building. Incredibly, she was wearing a bright green dress that, with her cotton-candy-processed hairdo, made her look like an overgrown munchkin from Emerald City. Not that one could normally describe her as overgrown at five-one or so, not counting her spike-heel shoes. She'd insisted that her chair be raised several inches above all others on the semicircular dais for the school board. Ostensibly, this was merely so that "the TV cameras can find me" (board meetings are televised on a local cable network), but I think it had more to do with her insatiable need for attention and power.

From amid the throng of reporters, Sylvia held her hands up dramatically. "Gentlemen, ladies. As the saying goes, 'Warn et ipsa scientia potestas est,' or for the pedestrians among us, 'Knowledge is power.'"

She had once taught Latin and made a practice of working it into daily conversation. I now regretted never having learned the language myself. I would have loved to march over to her and say, "Ipso stuffi ein gymsockna entra et," but I doubted that my translation was 100 percent accurate.

The small auditorium was packed. Lauren Wilkins, my closest friend, had saved Mom and me seats in the front row. Lauren worked as secretary in the high school and, having predicted how well attended this meeting would be, had come here directly after work. Her daughter, in turn, had gone over to our house after school, where my husband was currently staying home to watch the three children. Or, more likely, was currently watching TV with the three children present.

My father was chatting with another board member in front of the dais. They rounded the string of tables just as I approached. I experienced an unpleasant moment of clarity and pictured my father as others might see him, a nondescript elderly man, his shoulders slumped. He had a hitch in his step as if his hip was bothering him. When had he gotten so old? I nodded in greeting to Lauren and took my seat between her and Mom. Meanwhile, Dad hung his jacket on the back of his chair in the front of the room, caught our eye, and gave us a thumbs-up. As the newest board member, he'd been assigned the seat at the very end of the string of tables, on our side of the room. He pleasantly greeted the woman beside him, Carol Barr. She was a former electrical engineer with grown children. Her views sometimes annoyed me and sometimes struck me as right on. In this latest battle that had so polarized the board—Sylvia's boneheaded desire to stop funding the music and art departments—Carol was on the correct side. Along with my father.

More to myself than to Lauren, I said, "My dad will brook crap from no man. Or no maniacal woman, for that matter. Then again, maybe I shouldn't have said 'brook crap,' but rather..." I was rambling out of nervousness, and Lauren was listening to me patiently, but her eyes had glazed over. "Never mind."

"Tommy's working tonight, or he'd be here, too," she said.

"Too bad," I replied in a half whisper. "I have this strange feeling that Tommy in his police uniform might be just the thing to keep the potential for violence under wraps."

"What's that?" Mom asked.

"I was saying that, last time I was here was for a chamber orchestra, featuring violins doing rap." Well, that made no sense, but Mom wasn't paying attention to my answer anyway.

"Here she comes, the witch," Mom muttered under her breath. The black coat, which Sylvia hadn't been wearing earlier in the lobby, was now carefully draped across her shoulders as if it were her royal cape. She marched down the center aisle and, I couldn't help but notice, avoided proximity to my father by rounding the tables on the opposite side. She then handed her coat to an elderly woman who'd brought two pitchers of ice water to their tables. The woman must have been one of Sylvia's appointed minions, who carried The Royal Coat into a room behind them. The woman returned a moment later and took a seat at a built-in desk next to the board's dais, just below where my father was seated.

Before taking her elevated perch behind the center microphone, Sylvia Greene scanned the crowd. Her vision rested on me and then on my mom for what felt like a full, miserable minute. Her shoulders moved with the weight of her sigh, then she pursed her signature blood-red lips and began to chat with the woman beside her, Gillian Sweet, a member of the pro-Sylvia faction of the board.

"Bet they're planning their sacrifice even now," Mom grumbled.

Before my father had been elected to replace a Sylvia disciple, the seven-person school board voted four against three on every single issue, with Her Highness in the majority.

Dad, however, was now the swing vote. He had tried to be impartial and not vote in a block. His evenhandedness was probably why he'd become Sylvia's target. He sometimes voted with her, and therefore her reasons for initiating a smear campaign weren't as obvious to the community as if she'd singled out one of her diehard opponents.

Kent Graham entered the room, muttering "Excuse me" as he rushed down the aisle, narrowed by the standing-room-only conditions. Drat. Sylvia had her quorum.

Kent took his seat, and the other man on the board, Stuart Ackleman, followed suit. Being seated last was some sort of a power trip for Stuart, for I'd noticed he always managed to do so, even when he was first to arrive. In fact, Stuart cast a long, disheartened look at the school superintendent, who was talking with Sylvia's Coat Carrier and had not yet taken his seat beside the dais.

I scanned the faces of the seven board members. Sylvia's dearest disciple, Gillian Sweet, was my age—I had recently turned thirty-nine and would celebrate becoming twenty again next year—and was by far the youngest member of the board. My "by far" would probably have rankled the attractive and elegant Michelle Lacy, but nowadays when I can't easily estimate a woman's age, I assume she's about fifty.

A racket arose from the back, and I glanced behind me just in time to see someone, head covered in a sheet, release a pot-bellied pig down the aisle. The pig came trotting through the middle of the room, wearing a sign around its neck that read, simply, "Sylvia."

The human Sylvia watched the pig with amusement, until she saw the sign. She banged with her gavel and yelled, "Somebody, get that pig out of here! I will not allow an ad personem attack here! Nor will someone's juvenile sense of humor make a mockery of my leadership on this board!"

As if anyone needed a pig to do that.

A couple of men in the aisle seats of the audience took it upon themselves to capture the pig, which put up a considerable fight. The superintendent, I noticed, walked right past the fracas toward his seat without lending a hand. Meanwhile Sylvia kept pounding the desk with her gavel. Finally, she laid down the gavel and hissed something in Gillian's ear, causing her to blush.

With the room still abuzz, Sylvia cleared her throat and said, 'We need a few moments ex post facto to collect ourselves and begin again with tabula rasa. In any case, I need to speak to my fellow board members in private."

The audience groaned. I grumbled into Lauren's ear, "Or, as Caesar might have said, were he here tonight, 'Veni, vidi, vomiti.'"

Sylvia rose, then gestured at the other board members. "Ladies, gentlemen, after you. Let me remind you how poor the ventilation is in that room. It's always a little warm, so we'd best bring our water glasses."

They all topped off their glasses from the pitcher of water and filed toward the door. Sylvia suddenly leaned out and motioned to the bookish young man standing by the wall nearest me. "Sam. I need you to come, as well."

He seemed surprised at the request, but then followed her into the room.

"What do you think she's doing?" Mom asked me. "Why did she bring that man back there with them?"

"I have no idea. Maybe he's her lawyer, who's come with a notice for Dad to sign saying he's resigning of his own free will."

"He's not going to resign of his free will or anyone else's. How can she possibly think that he would?"

"I think Sylvia is counting on the notion that everybody has done something at some point or another that they're ashamed of and wouldn't want the world to know about."

"Not your father. He's the most scrupulously honest human being since...forever. Your father is one of a kind."

"He sure is. Sylvia Greene picked the wrong person to mess with." I said those words and meant them, and yet there it was again—that horrid uneasiness that insidiously crept into my consciousness at times—the realization that everybody did have something in their past that they'd prefer to keep to themselves. I'd engaged in a few such activities as a college student in Boulder, Colorado. I would be mortified if I had to own up to such things publicly and in front of my children.

Surely Dad, as a college professor, had known more about temptation than most. He'd told us how it infuriated him when college girls would flirt in shameless attempts to shore up their grades. All Sylvia needed was one mild transgression on his part and one blabber, and Dad's life would be made miserable.

At that thought, I found myself grumbling, "I don't really know why anyone bothered to elect Gillian Sweet and Kent Graham. They're nothing but Sylvia's puppets, anyway. She should just have had herself cloned. Then at the start of every board meeting, we in the audience could start by singing 'Send in the Clones.'"

Lauren chuckled, but Mom clicked her tongue. I found myself trying to picture how I could use that idea in one of my eCards.

I changed positions in. my seat but found myself growing crankier and less patient by the moment. "None of this would be happening if people just had the good sense to fund education. This makes me nuts! Their school taxes are deductible from their federal taxes anyway. Don't they prefer having their money go to their own children rather than to two-thousand-dollar Pentagon toilet seats?"

"Keep your voice down, Molly," Mom whispered.

The woman in the seat next to Lauren leaned past her to shake a finger at me. "None of this would be happening if Charlie Peterson and the other idiotic half of the board hadn't tried to prevent my sons from being able to participate in football!"

"He doesn't want to cut athletics, but he realizes that art and music need our support more. If we don't reverse trends, this country will turn into a cultural wasteland."

"Cutting sports programs will hurt our boys' futures. Do you have any idea how much money a football player makes?" the woman asked me scornfully.

"Yes, I do, and you've just made my point. Do you realize how rare it is for any athlete to actually wind up playing pro sports? But people can play and enjoy music all their lives."

She stood up abruptly, her nose in the air. "Come on, Bob, let's move where the air is a little fresher."

Though I could feel my mother's disapproving eyes on me, I somehow couldn't stop myself from turning to see her reaction. Predictably, she sighed, shook her head, and said, "Oh, Molly."

"Sorry, Mom." She was right; I was only making things worse.

Another couple sat down in the seats the first couple had vacated. The woman leaned around Lauren and said to me, "Good for you. We hate football."

I gave them a wan smile and nodded. Actually, I love football, and my beloved Denver Broncos finally winning those Super Bowls were personal triumphs permanently etched in my memory. I had lived in Colorado for seventeen years, prior to returning to Carlton, New York, five years ago.

The minutes ticked by. The "audience," currently witness to nothing but a closed door and an empty row of tables, grew ever noisier. I noticed the sweaty upper lip of the cameraman, who was supposed to be broadcasting this live for the local cable network. Sylvia had insisted that no commentators be allowed to speak and that every minute of the board meeting be shown without interruption. I smiled at the thought of channel surfers catching sight of the crescent-shaped table and its seven empty seats. This could prove to be their highest-rated broadcast to date.

Some fifteen minutes past the scheduled start time, the door opened. All seven members emerged, followed by the strange young man, who was now staring at the floor. Everyone seemed tight-lipped and red-faced. This time, at least. Sylvia was carrying her own water glass.

"It's pretty obvious they were having quite the fight in there," Lauren whispered to me. "I'd have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation."

"No, you wouldn't have. You'd've spent the entire time frantically trying to escape Sylvia's web." I gave Sylvia a smile as she glared down at Mom and me.

"The meeting will now come to order," Sylvia said, rapping her gavel on the desk with so much venom that several members of the standing-room-only crowd that flanked us flinched.

"Does anyone..." Sylvia's face looked flushed and her voice sounded strained. She patted her chest and cleared her throat. "Excuse me." She took another drink of water. "Does anyone on the board have an announcement they'd like to make?"

She looked at the faces of the board members to both sides of her, letting her eyes linger on my father.

Nobody spoke, and my father grimly shook his head. "Well, then... I guess...I guess I have no choice..."

Sylvia's voice faded with each word, and her face was damp with perspiration. She stopped and clutched her throat. "Can't...breathe."

My heart started to pound. I felt Lauren and my mother stiffen, and the audience in the room was absolutely silent, attention riveted to the strange scene playing out before us. Could this be yet another one of the Latin-loving drama queen's acts?

"Sylvia, are you all right?" my father asked, rushing to her side.

She struggled to her feet, as if intending to leave the room once again. She scanned the faces of her fellow board members and murmured, "Et tu, Brute?"

My father caught her as she collapsed.

© Leslie O'Kane

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