The Ninth Step
Is it true what they say? That we’re only as sick as our worst secret? Because Helen Patrice has one. Last night, she murdered a stranger…
Helen is a recovering alcoholic struggling through a twelve-step program. Now it’s time to make amends for a crime she got away with—a hit and run accident that killed the wife of school teacher Edgar Woolrich. It’s time to face the consequences. When she finally gathers the courage to meet him, the ninth step begins with a lie—the first of many as their relationship grows, and Helen knows it’s far too late to reveal the truth to a man she’s come to love. Then one day, she receives an anonymous note: Does he know you killed his wife?
Now her devastating trail of deceit is about to lead her into the darkest place so far—that of other people’s secrets…
Goth was over
At two thirty in the afternoon, while teaching his last class of the day, ninth-grade geometry teacher Edgar Woolrich was thinking about the online auction that ended that night. The listing was for a vintage Japanese puzzle box—of which he, admittedly, already had many. But this particular box was special. It had five hidden compartments. Quite rare. The final price could easily climb into the thousands. Or, the obverse, a true bargain could be had.
Timing his bid would be critical. It was Friday night, so one could extrapolate that many potential bidders would be out at social functions. There were time zones to consider. Potential bidders on the West Coast could still be stuck in late-day commutes, while Edgar would be snug at home, his mouse pointer poised over the “confirm bid” button. Of course, ubiquitous handheld devices lessened that edge considerably. And the auction already had eighteen people watching it. Plus you had to factor in folks like Edgar himself who never clicked the “watch this item” button—lest they tip their hand in some unforeseen way.
No, the factoring that came into play while bidding on an online auction was like plotting irrational numbers on an infinite grid.
The lines of intersection were beyond reckoning, the variables endless.
“The triangle,” Edgar said, “is God’s own perfection.”
Nobody heard him. While he had been daydreaming about the puzzle box, his class had taken advantage of his inattentiveness.
Edgar picked up the music triangle that he had borrowed from Mrs. Frazer, the band teacher, and struck it repeatedly with the metal wand. All of the students looked to the front, and the classroom grew quiet. Edgar wrapped his fingers over the vibrating metal instrument to stop the lingering note.
“Forget circles. The circle is the pursuit of madmen. If it’s perfection you’re after”—Edgar motioned to the music triangle and dropped his voice into a pitch-perfect Al Pacino as Tony Montana—“Then say hello to my little friend.” The kids laughed. Everybody loved Scarface. “This percussion triangle is equilateral. All sides equal. See? The angles too. Sixty degrees.” He used his fingers to bridge the gap where one corner of the instrument didn’t meet. “Now a right triangle like the one drawn on the board has a ninety-degree angle. See it? And God put one man on earth to figure out the perfection that is the right triangle. And that man’s name was Pythagoras.” Edgar glanced through the top half of his bifocals, looking into his students’ faces, making sure he still had their attention. He did. “Now Pythagoras lived over two thousand years ago. And in this little town he lived in, he was really popular. With the girls. Right? Pythagoras was really popular with the girls because he had this really big . . . theorem.” This got him some laughs, and he could see that all the class was watching him closely to see how far he’d take the joke. Edgar himself didn’t know how far he’d take it. He’d been known to do some pretty bizarre stuff to get his point across to a room full of bored high school freshmen. And this was a remedial class, covering basics most students had mastered by seventh or eighth grade. These kids were almost genetically predisposed to not comprehend math. Sometimes shock and awe was the only method that worked. But these were PC times, and it seemed like every other week some suburban teacher ended up with his or her face displayed on the six o’clock news for inappropriate conduct and soon after tendered a “voluntary” resignation. And there you were, no more discretionary income for Japanese trick boxes. Not to mention food, clothing, and mortgage payments. No, soon you would be selling off your own puzzle boxes and applying for a food stamps EBT card.
Edgar paused to place the percussion triangle back in his briefcase so that he would be sure to remember to return it to Mrs. Frazer. While his attention was diverted, he heard titters of suppressed laughter from the back of the class, as well as a clear “ewwwww” of disgust. Edgar glanced up, his eyes automatically going to the spot from which trouble was most likely to come. Where it always came from. He peered through his thick bifocals at the pale skinny boy seated at desk seventeen. Martin Kosinski was so white and thin, the boy looked damn near skeletal. His face was furiously flushed with embarrassment, highlighting pimples like little red-topped volcanoes ready to erupt. Edgar could see that tears were threatening to overflow the boy’s mascara-lined eyes.
Every year there was at least one of them. A natural-born target. This year it had been Martin. The kid was just so damn odd. The jet-black hair was quite clearly a dye job. And nobody’s skin was that pale; it had to be powdered. Throw in the Johnny Cash wardrobe and the kid stood out like a whore in church. Edgar realized that high school was a time when children discovered and defined their adult identities, and that process was a rocky one for many of them. But Goth? Hell, even Edgar knew that Goth was over.
The predators were abundant. Always. There were plenty of bullies to go around. And, as always, there was the King Bully. The one who set the pace, who defined just how intense and cruel the torment would be. The crown this year went to Jack Mendelson, a fifteen-year-old with thick beard stubble, thick muscles, and a thick head.
So why not move Martin so that he wasn’t sitting directly in front of King Bully? It had been Edgar’s experience that a course of action such as that invariably failed. It was a step toward seclusion. It perpetuated rather than halted. Edgar had always sat the students alphabetically, and if he started switching them around midyear, it not only taught Martin that the solution to life’s problems was evasion, but it also sent the message to Mendelson that he had won. And Edgar was adamant that Mendelson would not win. Not on Edgar’s watch.
Although he hadn’t actually seen him do anything, Edgar said by rote, “Jack Mendelson, hands to yourself. It’s not a difficult concept. Thank you.” Mendelson offered none of the protests of the wrongfully accused, so Edgar figured that he’d been right and moved on. “In fact, Pythagoras’s theorem was so big that—”
Jason McNiel, the pimples on his forehead also looking Vesuvian, held his hands about a foot apart and asked, “This big?” The classroom exploded with laughter, and Edgar laughed right along with them. This was what he wanted.
“No. Bigger. His theorem was so big . . .” Edgar cupped his hand around his ear and leaned forward.
The class didn’t disappoint and boomed in unison: “How big was it?”
“It was so big that virtually every other mathematical theorem advanced since has been influenced by—” From the corner of his eye, Edgar saw Martin twist forward in his desk with a jerky motion.
“Has been influenced by it. It’s pretty simple actually.” Although he knew the theorem by rote, Edgar leaned over his desk, head down, running his finger across an open page of the textbook, as though trying to locate some tidbit of information to depart.
“The Pythagorean theorem just says that in a right triangle, and I know you guys remember what a right triangle is. I just said it. That in a right triangle, the sum of the squares of the two legs coming off the right angle . . .” Edgar paused, leaning farther into the text, as if locating the exact wording. With his head tilted thus, Edgar created a sort of prism with his rimless glasses that allowed him a murky view of the classroom. He could see that Mendelson, all 220 pounds of him, was making a grand show of picking his nose. As best Edgar could tell, the kid mined a pretty good one and held it out proudly for the others to admire. Mendelson then leaned forward and carefully wiped the booger on Martin’s pale neck.
Edgar slammed his book closed with a sharp crack. “Class, excuse me.” He made a straight line for Mendelson and with his hand around the boy’s meaty biceps, extracted him from his desk.
“Dude, it’s chaos. Mad fuckery.”
“That, Mr. Mendelson, will cost you. Principal’s office. Now.”
At two thirty in the afternoon, Helen Patrice was having one of those days. For some reason, she just couldn’t get the needle into the vein on the Great Dane’s foreleg.
Her brown hair was pulled back with a simple elastic band, and Helen’s eyes focused with sharp intent on the task at hand. Her vet tech, Elmore, was using every ounce of his considerable girth to hold the dog, Mitzi, still.
In a series of movements that she had performed countless times before, Helen extended Mitzi’s foreleg and quickly found the main vein to the back of the leg. Although many vets now drew blood from the animal’s jugular, as a leg draw was supposedly more painful for the dog, Helen didn’t care for the risk of interstitial hemorrhage that went along with a jugular draw.
Elmore had Mitzi’s head cradled firmly in the crook of his left arm. His right hand was clasped around the dog’s upper leg, pulling the skin taut so that the vein was visible. Helen put her thumb on it and gently pressed, making the vein rise. But every time she tried to pierce it, the vein rolled. From deep inside, the Great Dane had started to growl a warning that she wasn’t going to take much more of this sticking. “Poor baby,” Helen cooed to the dog. “We’ll get it this time. Promise.”
Helen looked up at the Great Dane’s owner, who had been silently observing the process. “Talk to her,” Helen told the man. “Soothe her with your voice.” The man cleared his throat but didn’t speak.
At last, Helen felt the 21-gauge butterfly needle penetrate the vein and halted the forward motion as soon as she saw a flash of blood in the tubing, careful not to penetrate the posterior wall and blow the vein. She pushed the vacuum tube into the hub at the opposite end of the draw set and watched clean red blood spring into the thin surgical tubing and collect in the vial. “Got it.” She kissed the Great Dane’s cold wet nose. “Good girl, Mitzi.” Elmore eased his grip on the dog but stayed close by.
Helen treated the blood sample with an anticlotting agent. She added formalin and placed the preparation in the centrifuge. Once the sample had spun down, Helen prepared a blood smear using an acid phosphate stain and placed the slide under the microscope to complete the microfilaria test. The whole process took about ten minutes. She hardly needed to look at the results. Leaning over the microscope, she found the point of focus, and sure enough, there they were—the distinct serpentine squiggles of Microfilariae, heartworm larvae. One of the larva was coiled in a triple loop and looked exactly like the snake in the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
Helen could feel the eyes of the dog’s owner watching her. He was a tall young man with a bulbous, pumpkin-like head. He would have been otherwise ordinary looking except that his lips were so thin that he appeared to simply have an opening in his face: a mouth like a child might carve on a jack-o’-lantern.
Usually, Helen talked to and reassured the pet owners during test procedures, but Pumpkin Head had a nonchalant attitude that frankly irritated Helen. He had come in saying that the dog was listless, had no appetite, and had developed a constant cough. Last year he had “been talked into” paying twelve hundred dollars to own a purebred harlequin Great Dane. And that was a lot of money. And he really couldn’t afford a vet bill, but, at the same time, he couldn’t see losing twelve hundred bucks if the dog up and died. He had been thinking about breeding the dog—and he always referred to her as “the dog,” though he had written Mitzi on the admittance paperwork—because even if he sold the puppies at a grand each, that was solid money.
Helen thought that she would be hard pressed to imagine a more distasteful recipe for animal cruelty than Pumpkin Head going into the dog-breeding business.
Helen raised her head from the microscope and looked the owner squarely in the eye. “I thought you said Mitzi was on heartworm prevention.”
“And you give it every month?”
The man looked down at his shoes. “I try to. It’s just hard to remember those things every single month.”
Elmore and Helen shared a quick glance. Elmore arched his eyebrow.
“Yes,” Helen said. “Well, I know what’s causing her cough. Heartworms.”
“Great. How much is that gonna cost?”
Helen closed her eyes and took a slow, steady breath. “Yes, luckily there is a treatment for this otherwise fatal disease.” She snapped off her latex gloves and tossed them in the trash. “Treatment runs about nine hundred dollars.”
The owner whistled through his slit of a mouth and appeared to give the matter some careful consideration. “How much to have her put to sleep?”
“Put her to sleep? Because you can’t remember to give her a pill once a month?” Helen closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to gather her thoughts and stem the anger she felt threatening to erupt in a less than professional manner. Elmore watched her closely, and when she opened her eyes again, he saw that they had turned to cold marble. Unconsciously, Elmore tightened his grip on the Great Dane.
Helen reached down and pulled the blood smear slide from the microscope and held it out to Mitzi’s owner. “How about this, Great Pumpkin. How about as a helpful hint, I shove this slide up your ass? Think you could remember then?”
Pumpkin Head crossed the room and took his dog away from Elmore. He hooked Mitzi’s leash to her dog collar and headed for the door. Over his shoulder he said, “You just lost a customer, lady.”
“Stop. Before I cry.”
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