48

Aberdeen, Washington, Sunday March 26, 11.51

She had been hoping for more, a last name at least. She wondered if she was travelling ever further down the wrong path, piling error upon error, taking one false turn after another. What if Forbes’s date referred to something else entirely, nothing to do with Aberdeen? Even if it did relate to something that had happened in this town, how could she be sure it was the fire he had had in mind? It was possible that none of this had any bearing whatsoever on the death of Victor Forbes. She caught a reflection of herself as she left the hotel – the new hair, the bruise, the face still pained from the wounds she had sustained less than two days ago – and wondered what the hell she was doing.

For a moment she imagined hailing a cab to the airport and running away. She could buy a ticket to anywhere. Maybe she could turn up at Liz’s flat, ask to sleep on the sofa, get to know her nephew. There would always be a bed for her at her parents’. But then Maggie reminded herself that the sweet lady who had sabotaged her car on Friday night had been ready to kill without discrimination; then she remembered what Liz had said, how no one was trying to kill her because she knew nothing. She had already drawn her sister in too deep – plumbing the depths of the Hades that lurked beneath the internet – it wouldn’t be fair to expose her to anything worse.

New York? The idea filled her with instant warmth. Instantly, too quick for her to stop it, an image floated into her head – she was standing in Uri’s apartment, the pair of them smiling at each other the way they smiled before a kiss.

But now rational thought caught up, trapping the image that had escaped and throttling it with reality. That apartment was no longer her territory. Hadn’t she heard another woman padding along those hardwood floors? Wasn’t there now another woman stepping out of the shower and shaking her hair dry before that strange, blemished Tunisian mirror, another woman sleeping on those sheets?

She could, of course, go back to Washington with her tail between her legs. But Washington was not kind to losers. And the President was there, the President who was relying on her: she would be consigning him to failure too.

No, there was no running away. She owed it to Stephen Baker, to Stuart and to herself to find out what – and who – was behind this, wrecking the Baker presidency and several lives in the process. She could not rest till she had.

She pulled out her BlackBerry and made a bet with herself. If there was any man who, on principle, would ensure his number was in the local phone book, it would be him. She called directory assistance and asked for the home number of Principal Ray Schilling.

She wondered if he would be surprised to hear from Ashley Muir, still alive and well. What if he too had been in on the plot to send her car skidding into oblivion on Friday night? If he had been, he had done a good job hiding it.

After a few pleasantries, and an apology for disturbing him at home on the weekend, she went straight in. ‘Mr Schilling, something you said stayed with me. “I remember all the students I teach.” That’s what you said.’

‘Quite true. I did say it. And I do.’

‘Could I test you?’

‘Go ahead.’

‘Pamela.’

Did she imagine it, or was there an intake of breath at the other end of the phone?

‘You’ll need to give me more than that, Ms Muir. I wouldn’t ask the boys to shoot at the hoop with one arm tied behind their back.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t have a last name. Best I can give you is that she was a contemporary of Robert Jackson and Stephen Baker.’

‘Same class as them, you say?’

‘Yes.’

‘No, I don’t think so. Let me try to picture the class. That’s how I do it, I visualize the class as I taught them.’ He began muttering names, as if taking a register.

Maggie, standing in the doorway of Swanson’s grocery store, closed her eyes in silent prayer.

Schilling murmured for a moment or two longer, then said, ‘No. As I thought, no Pamela in that class.’

Maggie sighed. ‘What about the year below them, a year younger?’

‘So that would have been the class of, when was it? Oh yes, I remember that class. No stars in that one, I’m afraid. Very weak debate team.’

‘And a Pamela? I’m sorry, Mr Schilling: this is very important.’

‘Let me think.’ More muttering and then he said, ‘Do you mean Pamela Everett?’

‘I’m not sure. Who was she?’

‘Well, she did stand out. Not the way Baker and Jackson stood out. But she was extremely pretty. The students called her Miss America.’ He paused. ‘Terribly sad.’

‘Why sad?’ Maggie’s pulse began to race.

‘She died just a couple of years after graduation. Just tragic.’

‘And how did she die?’

‘An illness. I forget the details. Very quick apparently.’

Maggie could feel the pain in her skull return as her brow involuntarily furrowed. ‘An illness? Are you absolutely sure about that?’

‘Yes of course.’

‘Did you see her?’

‘No,’ Mr Schilling said, slightly taken aback by the question. ‘She had left the school by then. Besides, it all happened very suddenly. But the parents asked me to read a lesson at her funeral. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians.’

Maggie was thinking fast. ‘Do you think I might speak with them?’

‘They left Aberdeen very soon after Pamela died. They wanted to get as far away from here as possible.’

‘Do you have any idea where they went?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t.’

She was about to ring off, but there was something about the way Ray Schilling was breathing into the phone that suggested he was hesitating. Maggie kept silent, not wanting to scare him off. Eventually, and warily, he spoke.

‘Ms Muir, I have not been completely frank with you. I do know where the Everetts are and it will not be difficult for me to find their address: I can access the school computer system from home. But I need you to be very clear about my terms.’

‘Of course.’ Terms? Was he going to ask for money?

‘We have kept the Everetts’ address on file all these years on the strict understanding that we share it with no one. The school has never broken that undertaking. Not once.’

‘I see.’

‘Now you’ll have noticed that I have asked you no questions about your work. I have not wanted to pry. And I won’t now. But when you came to me on Friday, you told me that a large sum of money is involved here. I am working on the assumption that you would not be asking me questions about Pamela Everett if the late Robert Jackson had not – for whatever reason – remembered her in his will.’

Maggie said nothing, hoping he would take her silence as confirmation.

‘I could not in conscience stand in the way of some financial comfort coming the way of the Everetts. Lord knows they have had their share of misfortune.’

‘You are a good man, Mr Schilling.’

‘I trust you, Ms Muir. Now I hope you have your snowshoes with you. If you think Aberdeen is the middle of nowhere, wait till you hear where the Everetts live.’

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