by Linda Lambert
Lisa was pissed. She had wanted to investigate, but Sarge had pulled rank, all that “senior officer” crap, relegating her like a Junior Deputy Janitor to “secure the area,” whatever that meant, and to “keep the press at bay.” What press? The bimonthly Westminster Windbag that the headmaster paid to print laudatory profiles of himself and selected board members?
Still, she’d done her job, cobbling the crime scene together—rather cleverly, she thought, a decorative distraction designed to disarm any curious visitors. A smart P.R. move communicating that everything was cool, a party was going on. But, of course, real police were unlikely to show up anyway—McPherson’s name should have been McFearful; he was afraid of any bad publicity threatening to dislodge him from his mahoganized opulence, though nothing so far had merited a 911 call.
Lisa tipped back in her orange plastic chair in the Security Office, poised for revenge. The S.O. featured black-and-white checkered linoleum and air that smelled like Seattle’s Gum Wall smeared with slobbery Black Jack and Double Bubble. She leaned in and bore down on the keyboard of her out-of-date Dell computer and entered into the requisition items that would get the puffin McGuffin in trouble and double the blood pressure of Ms. (Un)Abel. From the Halloween section of Amazon, she copied and then printed out:
- 5,000 feet “official” Crime Scene STAY BACK tape
- 10,000 feet “official” POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape
- 25 “official” fluorescent body bags
- 100 “official” oversized bloody footprint markers
- 500 custom silicon bracelets, rainbow-colored, with the bold letters: WWJD
With a reasonable facsimile of Sarge’s signature, the flourishing oversized capitals SMcG, Lisa signed and dated the document, totaling $972.87, and looked for an envelope to mark URGENT.
Sarge must have one, but where would it be? His desk was locked, the file cabinet contained dog-eared CASE CLOSED folders from a former, forgotten job, and the bookshelves yielded little more than The Truth About Self Protection, Soft Body Armor, and Fundamentals of Modern Police Impact.
Was she being rash? Vindictive? Stupid? Mean? She heard the voice of Olivia, her mother: “Someone named Nightlie should always act Rightlie.” Neither of them liked their surname, especially the “lie” part, but Angus Nightlie, a charming Scot whose family history contained a coat-of-arms and ancestors related to royalty, beguiled and wooed Olivia. And thus, Olivia begat Lisa.
Lisa paused, remembering the sweet moment two weeks ago when she’d seen a small yellow bracelet, the color of crime scene tape, slip below Sarge’s shirtsleeve, displaying four letters in bold, black typeface. WWJD. What the….?
“Jesus, Sarge, I had no idea…” she said, too stunned to retract her pointing finger.
“Not what you think, Junior Assistant Deputy.” The ‘J ‘ is for “Joe.”
“Biden? “Lisa raised her eyebrows. “Sorry to say this, but I thought you were kind of a redneck.”
“Hell, no!” he said.
She wondered, was he saying “no” to Jesus or to Biden or to being a redneck?
He began to whistle a theme song, “Dumm-da-dum-dum…DUM, the last DUM in a high minor key. Lisa briefly remembered her mother humming something similar when Angus fled in the Nightlie, soon after her birth, and Olivia had dialed the police.
Sarge continued. “Best damn detective ever. Joe Friday. Better than Kojak or Columbo, Matlock or MacGyver, Starsky or Sherlock.”
“Who are those guys?”
“What is the matter with you? You Gen-enders of the Alphabeters have no sense of the great T.V. detectives of eras past! He throat-sang the theme again, trying to simulate a trumpet, followed by a serious, deep-voiced monotone: “The story you’re about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” He smiled. “I’m talking about Sargent Joe Friday, Badge 714, played by Jack Webb. A straight shooter, though not many guns. Lots of seedy shots of L.A. Most known for saying, ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’”
She wanted to laugh at him but found she was smiling with him.
“I’m going to get you a subscription to Detective TV, the free version, but you’ll have to sit through all the ads for handcuffs and dandruff shampoo and firearms. It’s worth it. Study those investigators. Joe Friday might even help you with police work.”
The next day she found a three-month PAID subscription to Detective TV in her inbox. Despite Sarge’s brusque manner, I think he really wants me to succeed. And then: Okay, Mom, I’ll do rightlie. She tore up the requisition. Maybe she’d order a full-sized cardboard cutout of Joe Friday. On her own charge card.
Anyway, she needed this job to finance Operation Invention, which she was creating in every spare moment—before work sitting in her fuse-box-gray 2009 Jeep Commander, during work in the Staff Only bathroom, and at home when not absorbed by Detective TV or the dreamy, clever Lupin on Netflix. Recognition and a healthy amount of money would come to her soon enough and faster than a greedy peregrine diving for prey at 200 miles per hour.
The high-strung Debra Abel had reason to be concerned. She knew the contents of the subpoena the headmaster refused to look at. He had ignored her colorful expletive. Would a variant description such as dung or defecation, excrement or excretion have been more appropriate for his doctoral-level vocabulary? Most people, she thought, would respond to a subpoena in capital letters and a loudly voiced capital letter SHIT. He did not, consumed as he was in courtship of a new tuition-paying parent. Most people, especially an administrator, would care about accusations of unethical behavior of an employee.
Judson Trompe was the oldest member of the faculty, a math teacher who fancied himself a poet. Along with all employees of Westminster, he attended multiple sessions of Sensitivity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training. The Academy insisted on 100% attendance to continue their accreditation.
He penned a poem of words copied from the training organization’s flyer and circulated the doggerel campus-wide. A joke, a piece of timely creativity; he was certain colleagues would enjoy his clever but innocent offering:
Cultural competence and Inclusivity Religious sensitivity, disability diversity. A culture of inclusion, What a delusion. Unconscious and implicit bias This place is getting much too pious. Gender-bending appreciation? For which I have no admiration. I think I’ll participate in mammoth micro-aggression.
Trompe had also slung slurs at employees, variously referring to Sarge as “bulkily obese,” “corpulent,” “very well-fed,” and “sloppy fat.” He called Jane Varner “plain as a pitchfork with dull prongs.” He asked an Asian student in his class to Anglicize her name so that he and her classmates could pronounce it. A girl whose name started with a “J” confided to another student that he’d made “unwanted advances.” The headmaster advised H.R. to reprimand and remind the teacher of his commitment to retire the following June. He received a warning but no discipline.
Debra could do nothing at the moment. She sighed. McPherson was AWOL with a more urgent manner, but if he didn’t pay attention soon, his china teacup was going to return to its basic bone ash.
Netta stood a few feet away from Jack as he approached Sarge.
She’d been surprised at Jack’s unfamiliarity with his daughter’s phone and, uncharacteristically, asked him why, as she located the app.
“Hey, thanks for helping me. Well, I just don’t pay any attention to the stuff kids are doing with their phones. TikTok, Snapchat. It changes all the time. I work in logic design. You know, designing electronic circuits to carry out the operations of the control unit, the ALU, the I/0 controllers, and other hardware. Bits and wires and gates and circuits. I should stop now, right?”
Her lips turned into a smile. Helping people was how she got through the awkwardness of relationships, and he was making it easy, despite his missing daughter.
“Do you know why she has a Batman theme? That’s pretty unusual for a cool teenager.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe she thinks I’m a Bruce Wayne Playboy by day and a secret superhero in the shadows of night, ignoring her all the while. I’d give anything to be her superhero right now. I haven’t been a very good dad. I’m concerned, but…I really think she’s okay, still, I’m going to put a little pressure on that security guy. Thanks again for your help.”
Netta walked toward the Subaru, having escaped the purple and pink tape of the secured area. She felt a small pleasure as she glanced at the license plate—Mount Rainier in the background, “EVERGREEN STATE” in all caps, though clearly this applied to only a portion of the state.
Washington promised a different life, the separation from her parents in New York—the so-called Empire State, George Washington’s old term in 1785. New York, he said, was the seat of the empire. She sometimes thought her empire was not so much New York as India, her parents’ homeland; they the rulers, the emperors of her. They had immigrated from India two years before she was born, bringing with them the culture and customs of country and religion. America, an easy place to settle, with 200,000 Indian-Americans, and a Hindu Temple since the 1970s. People celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, gathering together for prayer, food, gifts. Big marriage festivals. Almost like home, they thought.
Her father Rahil and her mother Pooja would not force an arranged marriage upon Netta, but she was not encouraged to date and teaching in overcrowded classrooms of needy students for minimal pay left little time or energy for developing relationships.
As she drove into the apartment complex, she thought of the brief conversation she’d had with Phil Bradley who came into the staff room just as she was leaving.
“Hi,” he said, picking up his briefcase. “Sometime let’s have coffee—and not out of this fancy expresso machine. I’d like to see how I could integrate some of your environmental curriculum into my class. And by the way, despite the way I, um, advertise myself—he touched his ponytail and well-crafted jacked—I might be different than you think.”