by Silver Girl
A more detailed revision of the Original Grading Mrs. Baxter.
|Missy Barnes wrote the last answer on the bottom of her multiplication paper. She glanced over at the teacher’s desk uncertainly. “Mrs. Baxter must be really tired,” the third grader thought. The teacher’s head rested on her arms. She had been asleep for almost half an hour. Missy looked around the quiet, orderly classroom. Other children also sneaked peeks at the silent teacher. A few even whispered curiously to each other. Missy squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. Mrs. Baxter did not allow talking during seatwork. The volume of the whispering continued to increase, but Mrs. Baxter didn’t move a muscle.
Missy stood up with her math paper in her hand. She walked towards Mrs. Baxter’s desk to lay her assignment in the red inbox. As she approached the desk, the whispering suddenly stopped. Nicholas stuck his foot out to trip her. She knew he would; he always did. But as she jumped over his shoe, she lost her balance and fell against Mrs. Baxter’s desk with a loud ‘thump’!
“Sorry, Mrs. Baxter!” gulped Missy. She placed her paper in the tray. Mrs. Baxter still sat with her head in her arms.
“Shake her!” dared Nicholas.
Missy turned and looked at the rest of the class. They nodded their heads. Others also whispered, “Shake her!”
She slowly reached out and gave Mrs. Baxter a small push on the shoulder. Nothing happened. Missy shook her a little harder. One of the teacher’s arms slipped off the desk. It hung by her side gently swinging.
Missy jumped back with a little squeal. “She won’t wake up!”
“Go get the principal!” suggested Kiara.
“Push the call button!” shouted Tim.
Missy ran to the door and stepped into the pale blue hallway. She saw Mr. Thomas, one of the fifth grade teachers, walking down the hall.
“Mr. Thomas, help!” called Missy racing towards him. “Help! Mr. Thomas, wait!” her voice rose in panic.
“Hey! What’s the matter?” replied Matt Thomas as he turned towards the frightened eight year old.
“It’s Mrs. Baxter! She won’t wake up!”
“What?” Mr. Thomas ran into the classroom with Missy.
“Olivia! Olivia!” called Mr. Thomas as he shook Mrs. Baxter by the shoulder. Suddenly her head rolled back. Empty grey eyes stared at him. He felt for a pulse on her wrist and neck. Then he swallowed hard and faced the class. The children were still seated at their desks, perfectly silent, focused on his every action.
“Mrs. Baxter isn’t well, boys and girls,” Matt said as calmly as he could. He could feel his voice tremble slightly. “Line up at the door and come with me.” He led them next door to Mrs. Smith’s classroom.
As they entered, Mrs. Smith turned from the board. “Hi, Mr. Thomas, what’s up?” she asked curiously. Matt quickly walked to the front of the room and whispered in her ear. Mrs. Smith gasped. Then she turned toward the third graders huddled in her doorway. “Come in boys and girls,” she invited warmly, “pick a book from my library and find a comfortable seat. You’ll be staying with me this afternoon.” Missy and her classmates poured into the room, gathered in the cozy book corner filled with colorful pillows, and sat whispering softly.
Now that the children were in good hands, Matt hurried back to Olivia Baxter’s classroom. Again, he felt for a pulse. Then he picked up the phone and called the office.
Sheriff Amanda Ferguson shook her head as the body was wheeled from the school to the waiting ambulance. There would be no siren or flashing lights. This was a trip straight to the city morgue. They had waited until school was dismissed to take Mrs. Baxter away; the fewer students and parents around the better. She turned towards Cassandra Nichols, the principal of Mountain Falls Elementary School.
Cassandra Nichols’ blue eyes were clouded with concern. Her light brown black hair was pulled back, a few laugh lines crept around her eyes and there were a few strands of silver at her temples. She was new to the Mountain Falls community, having only been there four years. But she had brought positive changes to the little school that served the town and surrounding area.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Cassie.” Amanda sighed. The sheriff had grown up in Mountain Falls. She was in her mid-forties like Cassie but was about 6 inches taller and dressed in the khaki and green uniform favored by the mountain community.
“I know what you mean,” agreed Cassie shaking her head sadly, “This will be a difficult situation to handle with the staff, students, and parents.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her ears and straightened the burgundy blazer over her cream colored blouse.
Amanda looked at her friend sympathetically, “I knew it would be tough anyhow, but I think this might be more than a heart attack or stroke.”
Cassie stared at Amanda in disbelief, “What do you mean?”
“It’s just that I’ve seen my share of heart attack and stroke victims. Olivia doesn’t fit the mold. I better not say more until after the autopsy, but I did have the forensics team come in and do a complete crime scene investigation just in case. They should be wrapping up anytime now.” Amanda looked at her watch. It was a little after four o’clock.
Cassie stood in shock. This could not be happening. Bad enough that a teacher had died during the school day in a classroom full of children. Bad enough that she’d had to meet with the staff once school let out to tell them a colleague had died. Bad enough that district office people were beginning to hover around getting underfoot when she just needed to be with her staff and students to help them through this. But what if it wasn’t a medical problem? What if someone had killed this teacher deliberately? Who could have done this?
Amanda took Cassie by the arm and led her back into the school. “Hey, let’s have a coke and talk this over a little.”
Sitting in Cassie’s office brought back a few uncomfortable memories for Amanda. She had attended Mountain Falls Elementary as a child and she hadn’t always been on the right side of the law back then. The principal’s office certainly looked different now. Back in the day, George Washington had stared down over the principal’s right shoulder and the American flag hung on the left. There was still a flag, but it was next to the doorway, and a soothing painting of a forest path took up the space behind the principal’s desk now. Cassie sat down next to Amanda at the small round conference table near the window. They both had notepads, pens, and a cold coke in front of them.
“Let’s go over what we know so far,” said Amanda. She adjusted her reading glasses on her nose and began. “At 12:05 Mrs. Baxter picked up her students from the lunchroom and took them to the classroom. Then she read a chapter of “James and the Giant Peach” to the class for about 20 minutes.”
Cassie nodded, “That’s what the children said when I spoke to them.”
“Next she had the class get out their math journals, but instead of teaching a lesson, she had them complete a page of multiplication problems and do make up work they had not completed in their journals.”. Amanda tapped her pencil against the side of her legal pad.
“Yes, but that is unusual for her. She usually teaches a lesson. Having the class do seatwork right away during her math time was out of her normal routine,” Little lines crinkled across Cassie’s forehead as she frowned.
Amanda checked her notes again. “That’s what Missy Barnes said too. She was surprised that they were not having a lesson. Mrs. Baxter told the class she wasn’t feeling well and needed to put her head down for a few minutes. Has she ever done that before?” Amanda looked at Cassie, her brows raised in a question mark.
Cassie hesitated. “Well, last year, Olivia had knee surgery and was on pain medication following her return to work. I did find her once ‘resting’ with her head down, but she wasn’t asleep. And she didn’t have any students in the room. They were at music. That’s the only time I can think of. Usually she was very energetic despite the fact she was thinking about retiring soon. She’s been teaching for 36 years!”
Amanda made a note in her pad. “I know what I’ve heard about Mrs. Baxter in the community. Tell me your perceptions of how she was viewed by the staff, students, and parents here.”
Cassie took a long cold drink of her soda and sighed. “It’s kind of funny about Olivia. She could be very sweet and thoughtful when it suited her. But she was often down-right mean. You couldn’t predict what kind of mood she might in from one moment to the next. Some parents loved her because she was very strict and kept her class in order with clear expectations. They liked her firmness and how well she could teach reading to students who struggled. But there were other parents who were adamant that they didn’t want their children in her class because she was not warm or nurturing enough. In the last several years, I’ve actually had to move two children out of her classroom because parents were so unhappy.” Cassie stretched her nylon-covered legs and re-crossed them at the knee, one of her navy blue pumps dangling from her toe.
“What about staff? How did she get along with her colleagues?”
“That’s the really difficult part”, Cassie pursed her lips, “Most people tolerated her. She’d taught a long time and she really knew her craft. But she wasn’t very open to the ideas of others. She could be bossy and short; especially if she didn’t agree. Generally she could be pleasant and had a very dry sense of humor. She even had a few really close friends, Marty Gallegos, the reading teacher, and Kathy Steele, one of the fourth grade teachers. But I wouldn’t say she was well liked. I really think her students were well behaved because they were a little afraid of her, and because her moods were very unpredictable.”
“What about you? Did you get along with her?” Amanda looked at Cassie over the top of her glasses.
Cassie shrugged her shoulders. “We got along ok. I’ve had to speak to her a number of times about how she interacts with others and she hasn’t liked that. She has also been less than supportive of some of the new curriculum I’ve brought into the school. You know, she saw herself as the expert who should be consulted on every decision. I guess I’ve just done my best trying to help her buy-in to the new programs by giving her some leadership roles. But I have to admit, Olivia hasn’t always been easy to deal with. I know she has truly offended some people.”
Amanda nodded her head as she continued to jot down Cassie’s words. “Ok, I guess what I need to know is if Olivia has recently had any changes in her routines or behavior.
Cassie leaned back, looking up at the tiles in the dropped ceiling. ”It’s hard to say,” she pondered. “Olivia seemed to be extra pleasant in the last week or so. She didn’t bring up negative comments in the last few staff meetings like she usually does, and a few days ago, she actually stopped by my office to ask advice about one of her students. I can’t remember her doing that before.”
“Is there anything else out of the ordinary that you can think of?”
Cassie shook her head. “Not right now. Maybe something else will come to me later.” She looked down at her watch and stood quickly. “Oh, I need to get going! It’s almost 5 o’clock and Ted needs some dinner before his band concert at the high school.”
Amanda nodded and tore off the sheets of paper she had used from the legal pad. “Thanks, Cassie. I’ll catch you tomorrow so you won’t be late for your son’s concert.”
Amanda’s Ford F-150 easily rolled up the gravel driveway to her small cabin on the edge of Columbine Park about five miles from Mountain Falls. She parked it under the carport and let herself in through the weathered kitchen door. She was still very concerned about Olivia Baxter’s death. She was sure there was something wrong with the picture in her head. Amanda put a dinner in the microwave and sat back in her old orange overstuffed arm chair putting her stocking feet on the worn oak coffee table. This was her best thinking place. She popped the top on a diet cola and guzzled the bubbly drink.
As she reviewed the events of the day, Amanda wrinkled her brow. When she’d arrived in Olivia Baxter’s classroom, it had been at least 45 minutes since the middle aged teacher had told her class she wasn’t feeling well and then sat for the last time at her desk. “What caused death so quickly and silently?” the sheriff wondered, “The kids didn’t notice convulsions or anything other than her ‘sleeping’ at her desk.” She scanned the notes she had from her interviews with staff members. The only thing that stood out was how routine and regular the morning had been.
Olivia had arrived at school at her regular time with a green tea from the local coffee shop, DeerBucks,in hand. She took her morning duty in the drop off at the front of the building and then taught all morning until 11:25 when she sent her class to lunch recess. Next she sat in the lounge, ate her turkey on wheat sandwich, nibbled on a piece of the birthday cake that had been left for the whole staff, and picked up her class.
The microwave beeped and Amanda slumped out of her chair to the kitchen. Maybe when she got the coroner’s report there would be something to latch onto.
Cassie sat up late on her leather sofa with her lap top and a cup of tea. Her son had gone to bed; he was used to her working later so that she could be with him in the evenings. The band concert had been spectacular; Cassie was glad he was pursuing his love of music, and had made great friends with the other band kids.
She slowly typed the letter that would go home to the parents in the community, choosing her words carefully. “I wish I could have been more open with Amanda,” she thought to herself as she worked. “It’s just that if I told her everything Olivia has done to upset people, it would implicate half the staff. They are really good people who work hard for kids. I just can’t imagine that someone was so angry they would deliberately kill her.”
She reread her letter and saved it. “On the other hand, if someone at school did it, I’m sure I wouldn’t want them working with children. Maybe if I made a list of Olivia’s conflicts, it would help Amanda.” She opened a new document and began listing the grade levels and staff members with notes on what Olivia had done to them. An hour later, Cassie reread her documentation. She wondered if there was anyone who didn’t have a motive to do away with this antagonistic teacher.
Kindergarten- Constantly put-down kindergarten teachers as babysitters and non-essential personnel during staff meetings and in conversations in the lounge. Told Kim Taylor it was not important for her to do reading training since she couldn’t use it with the babies.
First Grade- Made Lindsey Reynolds cry when she accidently ruined a poster of Olivia’s when laminating.
Second Grade- Repeatedly commented to Eliza Carrington that she shouldn’t be staying late once she had her baby, and even asked why she was working and not staying home to raise her son.
Criticized the second grade team every year because their students weren’t prepared for third grade and she had to spend so much time on review at the beginning of the year.
Third Grade- Took credit for the unit on local history Margaret Smith wrote and continually discounted Margaret’s ideas during planning and staff meetings.
Fourth Grade- Emailed the whole staff “by accident” when asking Jim Walters why he was late to bus duty every afternoon and complaining about how she had to carry the load alone.
Fifth Grade- Refused to switch her Music and PE classes so that the fifth graders could have an extra practice before their musical. At a staff meeting, told Karen Blake she was too old to be teaching-said she was joking.
Specials Teachers- Made remarks throughout the years that they should take more duties and give up planning time to help classroom teachers; That they were just fluff and filler so real teachers could have planning time.
Secretaries- Never had attendance or lunch count done on time; was rude to them when they called to ask her to do it.
Cassie couldn’t see that there was any one thing that would trigger someone to kill their colleague. She herself had often been frustrated with Olivia because of her inability to get along with the rest of the school. She’d had to keep her on staff because of her years of service and the fact that Olivia had never done anything awful enough to be dismissed. She decided to email her list to Amanda and sent it right away. Still puzzling over who the killer might be, Cassie went to bed hoping for insight as she slept.
Even though it was nice to be right, Amanda regretted the information she was about to share with Cassie. She pulled into the school parking lot and walked into the office.
“Hey, Lynnette. How’s it going?” She smiled ruefully at the school secretary. Lynnette smiled back and rolled her eyes.
“We’re getting a lot of phone calls from parents but other than that it’s ok. The kids seem to be handling it alright. Our counselor, Paige Monroe, met with Mrs. Baxter’s class first thing this morning and has been popping in an out to check on things.”
“That’s a relief,” commented Amanda. “Is Mrs. Nichols in?”
“She’ll be back from lunch duty soon and doesn’t have anything on her calendar for about forty-five minutes. I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you. Do you want to wait in her office?”
“Sure. I’ll sit in the principal’s office to reflect on my past indiscretions,” Amanda joked as she took a seat at Cassie’s table.
About ten minutes later, Cassie joined Amanda. “Do you mind if I eat while we talk?” she asked. “I won’t get to eat ‘til two if I don’t have a bite now.” She pulled a lunch sack from beneath her desk and sat at the round table, pulling out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, and a soda. “Have you found out anything?”
Amanda sighed. “Yes. The coroner’s report came back about noon and I wanted you to know that Olivia Baxter died from an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.”
“Sleeping pills and alcohol! You’re kidding!” exclaimed Cassie. “I can’t believe it!” She set her sandwich down on a napkin, and took a long drink of root beer.
“Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but aside from her lunch, her stomach contained a mixture of fruit smoothie, vodka, and a commonly prescribed sleeping pill. I’ve already been in contact with her doctor to find out if she’d been taking a sleeping pill; he said he hadn’t prescribed one for her. In fact, he said he wouldn’t have prescribed this one because she takes a blood thinner. The combination of alcohol and the high dose of pills with her Coumadin could have easily caused her to become lethargic and quickly go into respiratory distress.”
Cassie leaned back in her chair. “When do they think she drank this?”
“They estimate it must have been about 30-60 minutes before she felt the effects. That puts the time of ingestion sometime between 11 am and noon. It had to have been during her lunch. But no one she ate with said she had a smoothie. I’m going to need to question the teachers she ate with again. Here’s another weird thing; We checked the room again before school started; no residue from the smoothie was found in her classroom. It must have been consumed somewhere else.”
Nodding her head, Cassie asked, “What about the custodians? Have you talked to them yet? They might have noticed something as they were taking out the trash.”
Amanda checked her notes. “We did talk with the morning custodian today, Pete, but we’ll have to talk with your night crew. They are the ones who might have seen something in the trash that evening.” She chewed on the end of her pencil, thinking. “When is your dumpster emptied?” she wondered.
Shaking her head, Cassie sighed, “Last night is when the garbage is picked up. No hope of finding the smoothie cup now. So, who do you need to meet with?”
Amanda gave her the names of the teachers who had reported yesterday that they had eaten lunch with Olivia. “By the way, thanks for the info on the conflicts Mrs. Baxter had with some of the staff. It might help. And all four people I need to see were on the list you emailed.”
A sick feeling made Cassie cover her sandwich with a napkin. She desperately hoped that none of her teachers had done this. But who else could it have been? “Let me go down and cover their classrooms. I’ll send them to you one at a time.” The principal slowly stood and began to walk down the hallway shaking her head, her heels tapping against the linoleum, the echo reverberating sadly .
Margaret Smith entered the conference room and shook Sheriff Ferguson’s hand. She tucked a blonde curl behind her ear and smiled stiffly. “This is certainly a difficult time,” she said.
Amanda noticed that Margaret was slightly pale and kept shifting in her seat. “Yes, it’s hard to talk about these things right away. I just have a few more questions about lunch yesterday. Close your eyes and think back to when you entered the teacher’s lounge. Was Olivia there?”
Margaret tilted her head to the left, eyes closed. “Yes. She was sitting at the table nearest the coke machine, facing the door.”
“Good! Was there anyone else in the lounge?”
“Eliza Carrington and Brenda Tollmann were at the next table eating their lunch. They teach second grade.” Margaret twisted her hands in the pockets of her white, cable-knit cardigan.
“Nice job, Margaret. Now what do you remember happening next?”
“I walked in and said hi to everyone. They all said hi back and then I went to the refrigerator to get my lunch…”
“Wait,” Amanda stopped Margaret in midstream, “What did you see in the refrigerator?”
Margaret squeezed her blue eyes together. She paused and thought for a moment. “My lunch was on the second shelf. Next to it was a brown sack lunch. On the top shelf there were a bunch of left over 2 liter pop bottles. I never open the drawers; they are always a disaster. That’s all I can remember.”
Amanda was disappointed but she continued. “What did you do after you got your lunch?”
“I filled my water bottle with ice and water. Then I sat across from Olivia and started eating.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Olivia did most of the talking. She was always complaining about not having enough planning time. First she was upset about having an extra staff meeting after school this week. Then she was mad that we had to meet with the assessment coach during our planning time on Tuesday. She’s here until at least 6:00 every night; you’d think she had plenty of time to get her lessons prepared, especially after teaching for so long.” Margaret opened her eyes. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, one last thing. What did she eat and drink for lunch?” Amanda gazed directly into Margaret’s eyes.
The third grade teacher paused, looked down and to the left, and then returned Amanda’s stare. “She had a turkey on wheat sandwich, a peach, and a diet coke. Oh, she also had a slice of Matt’s birthday cake. It’s what she always had. Sometimes she would have leftovers from her dinner. But usually she had a sandwich.” Margaret blinked as she looked back at Amanda and then shrugged.
Amanda let her sit in silence while she tapped her pen on the top of the table. She could tell that Margaret had just told a lie. But what was it? “Margaret, it’s very important that everyone shares exactly what they remember about that day. Mrs. Baxter did not have a heart attack she was murdered.”
Margaret’s mouth gaped open. She paled and stammered, “Wh-what do you mean?”
“Just what I said, Margaret,” Amanda said tersely. “Someone killed her deliberately. And I mean to find out who it is. Now, is there anything else you remember about lunch time?”
Margaret squirmed in her seat and then spoke. “Well, Paula Minturn, the music teacher came in while we were there. She sat down with Olivia and me while we finished our lunch. Olivia kept harping on planning time. But Paula said she thought we all had great planning time compared to the school she was at before. Then Olivia told her that music and PE teachers don’t need a lot of planning since they don’t teach academics. Paula got quiet after that. I could tell it bothered her though. After that, I got up and left. I needed to do some prep in my classroom before I picked up the kids. That’s all.”
Amanda let the silence stretch. Again, she felt something was not completely true about Margaret’s story. “Ok. You can go. I’ll be talking with everyone else who was there. Hopefully someone will remember something that will help.” She looked at Margaret seriously. “If you remember anything, call me.” She handed her one of her business cards and looked at her watch. “Go ahead. Remember, call me.”
Margaret nodded and scurried out of the conference room.
Amanda couldn’t believe it. Each of the second grade teachers gave the exact information that Margaret had. Nothing left out. Nothing added. It was bizarre because usually witnesses had similar recollections- but never exactly the same. It made her suspicious.
She was waiting for the last of the lunch group, Paula Minturn. The music teacher crept quietly into the conference room. “Sheriff Ferguson?” she whispered.
Amanda appraised the short, dowdy young woman before her. Locks of curly, dull brown hair hung to her shoulders. She peered near-sightedly back at the sheriff through wire rimmed glasses, taped together on the right side. “Have a seat,” Amanda invited the shy teacher.
Paula sat precariously on the edge of the chair. Her birkenstock clad feet protruded from beneath her pleated broom skirt. She folded her hands in her lap and waited.
Amanda cleared her throat. She did not have great hopes of finding anything out from this witness. “Paula,” she said gently, “I need to ask you a few questions about Mrs. Baxter.”
Paula nodded her head, “That’s what Mrs. Nichols said. She’s covering my class right now.”
The sheriff adjusted her glasses. “What do you remember about lunch with Mrs. Baxter yesterday,” she asked. “Please be as detailed as possible”.
The music teacher relaxed back into the chair and closed her eyes for a second. Then she looked Amanda straight in the eye. “Olivia was being her regular grumpy self.” Paula grimaced. “She was always complaining about something. She was probably one of the most negative people I’ve ever met. And she really hurt people’s feelings.” Paula sniffed and wiped her nose with a tissue clutched in her hand.
“What do you specifically remember about yesterday?” asked Amanda, hoping there would be no crying.
“When I sat down at the table, I wanted to talk to the third grade teachers about their music program. But Olivia was so busy putting down Mrs. Nichols, I didn’t get a word in.”
“What do you mean ‘putting down Mrs. Nichols’?” A sinking feeling began to sweep over Amanda.
“I don’t think a day went by that I didn’t hear Olivia say the Mrs. Nichols didn’t know how to run a school, that she took planning time away from teachers, or didn’t understand what it was like to be in the classroom. She was really complaining about the extra staff meeting this week- that was because the superintendent needed to talk to all of us about next year’s pay scale- so Mrs. Nichols really didn’t have control over that. Then Olivia was mad because the assessment coach was meeting with them to talk about their state assessment scores and Mrs. Nichols said it needed to be during their planning time.” Paula blinked owlishly at Amanda. “Is that what you mean by details?”
“Um, yes. That’s exactly it. Do you remember anything else that was discussed?”
“Well,” Paula looked down at her feet. “I said that we had lots of planning time compared to the last school I was at- it’s true. I only had an hour of planning a week there, and here I have at least an hour a day. But Olivia jumped all over me for saying that. She even said that music and PE teachers don’t need planning time because they are only academic teachers!” She looked up with angry sparks emanating from her gaze. “I see all 350 children here and plan for programs for every grade level! I need planning time too!” She recollected herself and took a deep breath.
“I see”. Now, do you remember what Olivia ate and drank for lunch?” Amanda was a little surprised by the fire hidden within this mild mannered young lady.
Paula told her the same thing as the other three.
Amanda surveyed her notes and glanced up at Paula who sat quietly and calmly in her seat. “Paula, this is very important. Do you remember anything else that Olivia ate or drank in the teacher’s lounge.
The music teacher looked up to the right, paused, and then looked down to the left before answering. “No, nothing else. She really didn’t eat a big lunch.” Paula looked unflinchingly into Amanda’s face.
Amanda stared back at the meek little music teacher. She knew she had told a lie. So had Margaret. Amanda was going to find out what it was.
When Cassie returned to her office she found Amanda staring out the window at the mountains.
“Any luck?” Cassie sat down next to her friend.
Amanda turned towards her. “Maybe. Why do you think Margaret and Paula would lie to me?”
Cassie was taken aback. “Margaret and Paula? I can’t imagine! They are two of the nicest people in the whole school. What makes you think they lied?”
“When I asked them if there was anything else that Mrs. Baxter ate or drank, they both paused and looked down to the left. Then they looked me straight in the eye and told me there was nothing else. Classic signs of lying. I know after the years I’ve spent in investigations.”
“I know what you mean. I can usually tell when kids are lying for the same reason,” agreed Cassie. “But I can’t believe Margaret and Paula would have anything to lie about.”
Amanda rolled her shoulders to release the tension that had been building in them over the last hour. “Cassie, I have a few questions for you too. I hate to ask, but I’ve got to ask them.”
Cassie looked at her friend seriously. “Of course you do. Just ask.”
“You haven’t said much about the conflicts you’ve had with Mrs. Baxter. You need to tell me more about them and how you felt about her.”
The principal leaned back in the chair and ran her fingers through her short black hair. “To be completely honest, I didn’t like her at all. Olivia was at the school when I came four years ago, and I was sure she’d still be here when I left- whenever that may be. Technically she was an excellent educator. She knew how to introduce new material. She could teach differently for groups of children with varying needs. She knew how to use her resources. But I didn’t like how she controlled her class- more through fear than through caring. And I didn’t like how she treated the adults she worked with. She was really mean to them and said mean things to them. Just like what I put in the list for you. But there was more than that. Those were the things I knew about. I know there were other things; things she did or said daily that hurt people. But I didn’t have enough to get her to move on. There isn’t a “be nice” part of the teacher contract or I could have gone through the process of dismissing her. And she could fake “sweetness and love” with parents and kids and even tried to do it with me. But I could see through it. She may have looked like a sweet little grey grandma, but she was a witch. I didn’t trust her.” She looked up at Amanda and gave her a crooked grin. “That’s the straight truth- no lying there!”
Amanda finished her notes and looked up at Cassie. “I appreciate your honesty, Cassie. But you know of course that gives you a motive as well.”
Cassie sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “I trust you to do your job and do it well, Amanda. Whatever you need to do, I’ll support you.”
Amanda stood and clipped her pen to the notepad. “Thanks Cassie. I’ll do my best to get to the bottom of this. I wish there was a way to make this turn out so that Mrs. Baxter’s death won’t hurt anyone else.”
“One other thing seemed to pop up when I talked with the staff about Olivia; she was forgetting things.” Amanda looked back at her notes. “Like grade level planning meetings, running off papers she said she would have ready for her team, even going to the movies with her friends, Mary and Cathy.”
“Hmm,” Cassie thought back, “Yes, you’re right, she has forgotten to send in her attendance and cover her before and after school duties a few times recently. I never used to have to remind her, but I had to just last week. Maybe you should ask her doctor about it.”
There was a knock on the door. Lynette came in and announced, “There’s a paper from Mrs. Baxter’s mailbox I think you might want to see. I was going through it to see if there was anything that needed to be sent home with the children and I found this.” She gingerly handed a sheet of white paper to the sheriff.
It was the lyrics to an old Billie Holliday song printed from a song lyrics website. Cassie and Amanda read them silently:
You ain't gonna bother me no more
Love just goes so far
Woke up this morning and found
I didn't care for you no more
Never felt so good before
You're down to my size
It's over and done
So honey, step down from your throne
That look in your eyes
Don't bother me none
Can take or leave you alone
From my window
Skies ain't grey no more
Here's the day
That I've been waiting for
Got only one heart
One heart with no spares
Must save it for loving
Somebody who cares
So you ain't gonna bother me
No more, no more
“Wow! Now that’s a message,” exclaimed Cassie.
Amanda turned the sheet over carefully. Nothing was on the back. “Can I have a zip-top bag to put this in?” she asked, holding it by one corner. “Maybe we can get something from it in the lab.” Amanda carefully placed the sheet of paper in the bag. “I forgot to ask you about Olivia’s son, Carson. Has he been around recently?”
Cassie looked thoughtful. “No, I’ve seen him once in a while in the four years I’ve been here. I think the last time was around January. Olivia had him come by to move some boxes out of her room. You know he lives down in Denver and only comes to see her now and then.” She paused, “Hmmm, I can’t remember her taking boxes of things home before. She usually was dragging things in like discarded books from the public library or yard sales. I wonder why she had him move so many boxes out?”
“That’s a good question, Cassie. Maybe I can find out.”
Amanda hung up the phone in her office. Her desk was stacked with reports, the remains of her lunch and yellow message slips. She rubbed her temples, still puzzled by Olivia’s behavior. Carson Baxter had been less than helpful and surprisingly unemotional about his mother’s death. He had indeed come up to see her in January and moved at least half a dozen large boxes from her classroom to her small ranch style house in Mountain Falls. But that was the last time he had seen her. He called her faithfully every Sunday evening to check on how she was doing and to tell her what was going on in his life as an accountant at a big firm downtown. But the phone calls were generally only 10 minutes long and not very uplifting according to Carson.
“She really enjoyed complaining about people.” Carson had said. “But I know she had a few friends. You know, they went to lunch on Saturdays, to the movies about once a month, that kind of stuff.” Other than that, he was no help. He didn’t know the names of her friends or what had been in the boxes. “I plan to be up there tomorrow to make the final arrangements for her,” Carson said, and gave Amanda his cell number so she could contact him while he was in town. “You’re welcome to look through her things to see if that gives you anything useful”. He hadn’t noticed anything different about his mother’s behavior either, other than once or twice she hadn’t been home on a Sunday evening when he called. But that was ok by him.
One more report came in before the sheriff left for the day. One of her deputies had taken a staff picture over to the Smoothie Man store. It was the closest smoothie place to the school. There were two people who’s photos had been circled because they had been there on the fatal day: Olivia Baxter and Cassie Nichols.
The sheriff reclined in her thinking chair at home. Her orange ginger cat, Tilly, curled in her lap. Amanda reread the fingerprint report. There were several sets of prints on the page of lyrics. Because fingerprints for all school employees were on file with the state, it was easy to run them. Besides Lynette’s and Amanda’s, Olivia Baxter’s and Cassie Nichol’s prints were all over the paper.
Amanda scratched her head and then rubbed Tilly behind the ears. It was a big puzzle. Had Cassie put the note there? Had she bought the smoothie and filled it with sleeping pills and maybe vodka? There was no way her friend could have done this. Did Olivia kill herself? She hadn’t left a suicide note. She apparently had not acted much differently than usual over the last several months, although she had been a little nicer and a little more forgetful. But she was getting older.
And why had those two teachers lied to her? Did they know something about Olivia’s death? Were they trying to protect someone? Who? Cassie?
Nothing but questions filled Amanda’s head. “I need to talk this out with someone,” she announced to Tilly. “But I can’t talk about it with Cassie. She’s a suspect too, especially after everything she told me today, the fingerprints and the smoothie.” She twirled her finger around the tip of Tilly’s tail. “I know; I’ll call Doc Roberts. He’s a good, sensible listener, and he knows about confidentiality.” She stood up sending her cat leaping to the floor and picked up the phone on the kitchen counter.
Twenty minutes later Amanda was comfortably settled on the front porch of Doc’s mountain cabin. It had been a warm April day and the glow from the sunset behind the mountains continued to radiate. Bundled up in her flannel lined jeans and sheepskin jacket, she had a local brew in one hand and a golden retriever under the other. Doc’s dogs were old friends too and they enjoyed the extra attention they got when the sheriff came by.
“So you see, Doc, I just need to talk it through to someone not associated with the case. And I know you’ll keep it to yourself.” Doc had been her family’s physician since she was born. He was retired now, but was still an important part of Amanda’s support system.
“You got it, babygirl,” Doc lifted his bottle of beer in a gesture of agreement. “Let’s hear it.”
She went over the details of the case and tried to include everything she knew. Then she sat back and waited. Doc tapped finger on the arm of the log chair he lounged in. She could tell he was turning the facts over in his head. His balding head was covered with a blue knit cap, and his thick, brown plastic glasses perched on the bridge. When her parents had died, Doc had been there for her, just like her aunt and uncle. She couldn’t have made it through that time as a grieving twelve year old without his support.
“So what’s these two teachers lying about, do you think?” he asked in his gravelly voice. Amanda shrugged.
“I think it’s about something Olivia ate or drank during lunch that day. Or it might be that they are protecting someone who gave her something else. How can I get them to confess?” Amanda wondered.
“They need to think that someone is going to be charged, someone who they would want to protect more than the person they think they’re protecting,” suggested Doc. “Sometimes you need to trick those bystanders into telling the truth for their own good.”
“That might work, but what if they aren’t bystanders? What if they are the guilty parties? Are they going to come through?” Amanda wasn’t sure about the idea.
“If it’s someone who they depend on for stability, who plays a significant role in their livelihood, they should come around.”
Amanda was afraid of the answer to her next question. “Who are you suggesting?”
“The principal,” grinned Doc, “They seem to respect her and I can’t see them wanting to lose a good one.”
“Criminy, Doc! You’ve got to be kidding!” Amanda slammed her beer bottle down on the side table and jumped to her feet. “I couldn’t do that! That could be Cassie’s career on the line!” She shook her head firmly. “No, I can’t do it.”
“Now girlie girl, don’t get yourself in a twist! There’s a way to do this without endangering your friend.” Doc patted the chair she’d been sitting in. “Have a seat and I’ll tell you what to do.”
After talking through the plan several times, Amanda agreed. She might be able to do this. It might work. She left Doc’s turning the pieces over in her mind. She had some work to do in preparation. But she should be ready by the time school was out tomorrow to put the plan into action.
At 3:30 the sheriff parked her truck in the school parking lot. Kids had been dismissed 20 minutes ago and mainly staff remained on the campus. She pulled in a deep breath and stepped out of the truck. “Here goes nothin’!” she murmured to herself.
Amanda walked into the office with a very serious expression on her face. “Lynnette, I need to see Mrs. Nichols.”
“She’s in a staff meeting until about 4:15,” replied Lynnette, “But I could go get her for you if you want.”
“No, I’ll go on down to the meeting. What room are they in?”
“Just go up the ramp to the last room on the left. That’s the staff meeting room.” Lynnette frowned, “Is there anything I can do?”
“Nope, got to go.” Amanda strode off up the ramp.
Cassie was briefing the staff on the memorial service for Olivia when Amanda came in the door. The superintendent, Dr. Carl sat near the front of the room waiting his turn to speak about next year’s pay scale.
“Sorry to interrupt, Mrs. Nichols, Dr. Carl.” Amanda nodded at the teachers. “I need your cooperation on a matter.”
“Of course, Sheriff. What is it?” Cassie gave Amanda a puzzled look.
Amanda drew a paper from her shirt pocket. “This a warrant for your arrest for the murder of Olivia Baxter.
A collective gasp escaped from the assembled staff members. Cassie froze at the front of the room. Amanda walked forward and took Cassie by the arm. “Let’s go,” she said firmly.
They began moving slowly towards the door.
All eyes followed their progress. Just as they reached the doorway, there was a shout.
Paula Minturn stood at her seat. Her mouth opened and closed several times.
“No, stop.” She whispered.
She turned to Margaret. “I’m sorry; I have to tell about the smoothie you gave her.” Her eyes welled with tears. “I can’t let Cassie take the blame for what you did.”
Margaret nearly fell out of her chair. “What!” she shrieked, “I thought you gave it to her! I didn’t give her anything.” Paula collapsed into her seat, mouth open in disbelief.
“Well,” said Sheriff Ferguson, “It appears we have some new evidence so I’ll be releasing Mrs. Nichols. “Ladies, I think you better come with me.”
The two teachers stumbled to their feet and followed the sheriff out of the stunned room.
See version one for the ending