A Hole in Juan: An Amanda Pepper Mystery (Amanda Pepper Mysteries)

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9780345480194: A Hole in Juan: An Amanda Pepper Mystery (Amanda Pepper Mysteries)

No matter the season, the Philadelphia private school where Amanda Pepper teaches English is never a center of tranquility. But with Halloween and the annual Mischief Night party only days away, the hope is that nothing more than old-fashioned vandalism and pranks will take place.

No such luck. Trouble erupts long before the witching hour, as the school is plagued by a series of mishaps ranging from the trivial to the potentially deadly–and most of which seem to center on a group of popular seniors.

A fire alarm rings during a test; all the orange and black paint is stolen from the art room; the mustard packets are taken from the cafeteria. Perhaps more serious: chemicals and equipment disappear from the science lab, as does one of Amanda’s exams and her attendance book. And the dapper new science instructor, Juan Reyes, receives a threatening message recalling that a teacher was once flayed to death by his students.

As Amanda juggles teaching, moonlighting as a private investigator with her husband, C. K. Mackenzie, and coping with C.K.’s visiting sixteen-year-old high school-dropout nephew, she tries to find out what, or who, is behind the ominous events.

Before she can unmask the tricksters, the turmoil in the school increases when students rise up against the administration’s censuring (and censoring) of a campus poet. Then unrest escalates into a lethally explosive menace, and Amanda receives a warning that there is more–and far worse–to come.

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About the Author:

Gillian Roberts won the Anthony Award for Best First Mystery for Caught Dead in Philadelphia. She is also the author of Philly Stakes, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia, With Friends Like These . . ., How I Spent My Summer Vacation, In the Dead of Summer, The Mummers’ Curse, The Bluest Blood, Adam and Evil, Helen Hath No Fury, Claire and Present Danger, and Till the End of Tom, among others. Formerly an English teacher in Philadelphia, Gillian Roberts now lives in California. Her website address is www.GillianRoberts.com–and she enjoys receiving fan e-mail at Judygilly@aol.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Tuesday. A day without honor or distinction. None of Monday’s dread, none of Wednesday’s halfway-through-the-week exhilaration, and nobody says, “T.G.I.T.!”

The week already felt long. I lurched out of bed, not exactly greeting the day. Insanity of sorts is part of any high school, but lately Philly Prep’s version seemed more ominous. Something more serious was in the air, a tension, or subliminal rumbling.

I thought of the animals who’d felt the undersea earthquake and anticipated the tsunami, saving themselves by running for the safety of the hills. I’d have done the same if only I could locate the hills.

I had spent too much time lately obsessing about it, as if gnawing at nothingness would somehow reveal a solid center. Mackenzie had just about convinced me I was imagining the problem, or at least exaggerating it. After all, I spent my workweek with adolescents, their mercurial moods, their brains drowned in hormones.

“Let me get this right: You’re sayin’ teenagers are odd,” he’d murmured. “An’ your point is?”

I dragged myself to the bathroom and washed and dressed and tried to believe he was correct, and I was inventing a problem. I had to change my standards of what constituted normal and okay.

The phone rang, and I raced to answer it. I had a sleeping visitor on the sofabed and didn’t want to wake him.

It was Carol Parillo, a Philly Prep math teacher and friend. She sounded as if she were phoning from a submarine.

“Amanda, I’m sick,” she said. Actually, she said “Abadda, I sig,” her voice hoarse and congested. “In case—hate to do this—but in case—could you and Mackenzie be at the school party Friday? Just in case?”

Given how I felt about school lately, spending extra time with the students was the last thing I wanted, but she sounded so wretched I couldn’t refuse. I simply prayed for a miraculous cure for her.

Mackenzie pulled on a V-neck sweater the color of merlot. It combined with his salt-and-pepper hair and his pale blue eyes to create an interestingly patriotic trio of colors. Once he’d gotten it settled on his shoulders, he looked at me, his expression quizzical. “Somethin’ on your mind, isn’t there?”

“That phone call . . .” I broke the news as gently as I could. He did not jump up and down in jubilation at the idea of chaperoning a school dance. I should have waited till we’d had our coffee.

“An’ I’m to go, too?”

“Remember the ‘whither thou goest’ part of the marriage vows?” I searched for my shoes.

“Actually not,” he said. “I don’t think they said that at City Hall.”

“It’s a tradition.”

“The whither thou goest thing? If you’re followin’ that script, I think you’re supposed to follow me.”

“No—the party itself. It’s Mischief Night, and this is the keeping-them-off-the-street party.”

“Aren’t you glad you’re a cat?” C.K. asked Macavity, who lay curled on the duvet, mostly asleep. The part that wasn’t asleep looked bemused. “You don’t have to chaperone anything, ever.”

“Or work,” I grumbled.

I suspect that when Macavity finally activates himself, he phones the neighbors’ tabbies, Siamese, Manx, and Persians to compare the deadlines, pressures, billable hours, exams, commutes, and alarm clocks their humans endure versus their own self-centered, sensual existence devoted to enjoying the comforts for which their people labor. “And they think they’re the smarter species!” one will say, triggering a round of feline hysteria.

“I would like to have the end of October lopped off the calendar,” Mackenzie said. “It’s not a great time when your mother’s a witch.”

My mother-in-law declared herself a witch, or Wiccan, but from what I’d seen, her professed magic seemed indistinguishable from common sense and keen observation. But who knows? Maybe that’s what magic is. Personally, I thought she was a smart woman who, faced with eight children plus strays taken in for years, decided to be more effective by claiming to be a witch. I’m not sure anybody ever actually believed it—I’m sure Mackenzie does not—but they all tacitly agreed to behave as if they did.

So her strategy worked, which definitely is magic.

“Things always got stirred up around Halloween,” he said. “She’d be everywhere, on the radio, on street corners, in letters to the editor, protesting because witches were defamed—and because their outfits were mud-ugly as well.”

My mother-in-law’s wardrobe has the palette of a psychedelic nightmare and since she finds few ready-made pieces that please her, she designs and sews her dramatically draped garments. The idea that she’d wear a pointed hat and shapeless black gown—let alone the green makeup—was beyond insulting.

“Even without a witch in the family, I’d hate costume parties,” he said.

“You don’t have to wear a costume Friday—if we actually do have to go. It’s optional.”

“Good,” he said. “Why disguise yourself unless you’re involved in criminal activity?”

A cop’s rather narrow worldview, even if he was now a full-time student and not a homicide detective.

He stood in front of the mirror, studying his image. This was part of his morning routine. Part of my morning routine was watching him watching himself. He claimed he was making certain his clothing matched, wasn’t ripped or stained, and that buttons were buttoned, zippers zipped.

I knew better. We were both admiring him. Not even under torture would he admit to such vanity, but I wasn’t about to torture him because I didn’t think he had to justify anything. The man was aesthetically pleasing, and the sight of him brightened my day, so why not his, too? No wonder he didn’t like costumes and disguises.

“I’ll get our lunches ready.” I tiptoed out of our bedroom into the open space of the loft, padding silently past our houseguest.

Our marriage—spur of the moment and informal though it had been, and not yet one month old—had given us a new solidity and status in Mackenzie’s enormous family. Translated, this meant that, like other family members, we now qualified as a great place to send anybody causing grief to his assigned unit.

The Mackenzie clan believes the theory that it takes a village to raise a child and, happily, there are so many Mackenzies that they are that village. They believe a change of scene is as good as long-term therapy, and it’s their habit to separate and rotate family members when necessary.

Nobody had pointed out this small print in the marriage contract. I knew that while he was growing up, C. K. Mackenzie’s already huge family had often expanded. I never asked why extra children had landed there, some staying on for years, but apparently relocation worked as well as any other plan.

Rotating family was a brilliant idea—in theory. In practice, it meant we were now saddled with a lovesick sixteen-year-old Iowa high-school dropout named Pip.

I’d thought his name was literary, cute, Dickensian, but it turns out he was first a “pipsqueak” and then simply considered “a pip of a kid.” Pip had needed time out from his mother, C.K.’s sister Lutie, who was between spouses and didn’t feel equipped to continue waging battle with her son.

His heart had been broken by one Bunny Brookings, and he could no longer see the point of remaining in a school so full of Bunny, or, in fact, any other school. Instead, he wanted to drop out and get involved with crime—on the side of good, he insisted, the way his idolized uncle, my new husband, had done.

He’d be a cop, he said. Or maybe a crime scene investigator, a forensic something. Whatever he was destined to be, he wanted to begin the process of becoming it this instant.

Pip had loved having an uncle who was a homicide detective. Now, he’d grudgingly accepted C.K.’s decision to leave the force and work on a Ph.D. in criminology, but he wasn’t pleased. He wasn’t fond of abstractions and theory, didn’t care about studying the roots of crime, or trying to figure out how to prevent future crimes. He wanted chases and shoot-outs, but he was settling for recollections of crimes past. Stories about C.K.’s current moonlighting as a PI were a decided letdown.

Currently, Ozzie Bright, the owner of Bright Investigations and our landlord-partner, C.K., and I were rotating surveillance on one Berta Polley, who claimed complete disability from a supermarket slip on a lettuce leaf. She was, she said, confined to her bed with excruciating back pain.

The market’s produce manager insisted that the woman had staged the fall, and had done it slowly and comfortably. “More like sitting herself down on the floor, if you ask me,” he’d said.

We were taking turns waiting for Berta to appear at her door, demonstrating the ability to descend the stairs and to walk, but so far there’d been no sign of her, and it appeared to be possible that the only lying she was doing was, in fact, in bed.

Needless to say, sitting and staring at nothing i...

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