Nick Forte is worn down. Too much has happened too soon, too many things have gone badly, and the events in his fifth novel (Bad Samaritan) aren’t helping. Forte is in a darker place than in any of the other books, as the lengths he’ll go to help his daughter’s best friend’s sister, who is about to be expelled from private school because she got pregnant, show here.
The Yates School looked as impressive as its tuition bills must be. The presence of kids everywhere kept it from feeling too stodgy, but it was a Stepford kind of vitality. Requests for spontaneity required written authorization twenty-four hours in advance.
Headmaster Oliver Willoughby kept me waiting forty-five minutes. His secretary reminded me several times I had no appointment and he was a very busy man. Lucky for me he was always willing to talk with a prospective student’s parent, in from out of town with only today to see him. My conscience twinged no more than the atoms in a molecule of concrete when I told her that story.
Isaac Meier had been no help. He appreciated my call and was grateful for the support, but the law had no remedy. He also didn’t see the need for investigative services even it did become a legal matter. Caroline’s a pleasure, he and Ruth were delighted Tyler had such a friend. Stop by the house any time.
People who have conniptions over the NSA’s transgressions would dig holes, climb in, and pull the dirt over themselves if they knew what a private investigator can access with a paid login to any of several online databases, a case number—real or manufactured—and some patience. I knew Oliver Willoughby’s date of birth, Social Security Number, employment history, military service—or, in his case, lack thereof—wife’s name and employer, the names of his children (Michael, Elizabeth, and Geoffrey), what he drove, his credit score, and how much he owed on his house before I turned in after leaving Goose. A little touch-up in the morning and I was ready for him when I entered his office at one o’clock that afternoon.
Willoughby was a perfect example of an elitist bending over backward to prove himself a regular guy. His disapproval of my attire was so slight a less experienced observer would have missed it. He apologized for the wait and expressed sympathy at my plight, which he believed to be my wife’s transfer to Chicago. I was looking for a job of my own, checking out Yates while I was in town so we’d know if it should factor into our housing search.
We spent half an hour touring the campus. Lisa Meier knew me by sight well enough to say Hi, Mr. Forte when we’d bumped into each other at a movie last summer. I hoped she’d not recognize me in an unexpected context, or at least have the presence of mind not to acknowledge me if she did.
The tour complete, Willoughby and I sat in his office with cups of English Teatime. “Is there anything else I can tell you to set your mind at ease, Mr. Forte? Something the tour failed to address?”
I sipped tea, replaced the cup on its saucer. Not as sweet as I liked it, but it wasn’t that kind of day. “There is one thing. I’m sure no one is more aware than you of the challenge it is to raise children today, especially a girl. Between peer pressure and the entertainment industry, we need all the help we can get. What is Yates’s philosophy along these lines?”
“Excellent question.” I’d been tougher than expected during the tour. He appeared grateful for the softball. “Yates has a firmly and carefully worded code of conduct. Bullying, exclusionary behavior, hazing, and fighting are all precisely defined and forbidden. Drug use and ethical study standards are also spelled out and, I’m happy to say, are strictly enforced.”
“That’s good.” I leaned forward, sat back, then forward again, trying to create an impression of a man struggling with an awkward question. “There are…certain…uh…let me put it this way: I looked for pregnant girls. Aside from setting a bad example, I wouldn’t want to find out the school’s reputation was tarnished by loose moral standards.”
“I understand completely. Rest assured we treat those concerns with the utmost seriousness. All students—and their parents—are required to sign an ethics and morals agreement prior to matriculation. It outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and describes the consequences, including expulsion. Much of what you pay for here is a spotless reputation, embodied by our graduates, which will accompany your daughter throughout her life.”
“Outstanding. The last thing anyone wants is to have to watch a pregnant girt walk through graduation.” His aura dipped for a second. “Bad enough to have to explain the basketball under her gown to the younger kids. It reflects badly on everyone in the class.”
I relaxed into my chair. “This is a great relief. I expect these standards extend to the faculty and staff, as well?”
If that affected him, I missed it. “Of course.”
“The reason I ask, from the custodians up through the administration, the staff as a whole spends as much time with the children as the parents do. More, in some cases.”
“True.” Willoughby’s face showed signs of slippage.
“Considering the reputation that’s going to follow my daughter around for the rest of her life—” not that she had a chance of acceptance now, even if we were applying, “—as bad as it would be to see a pregnant girl on the stage, a faculty blemish would be even worse. I mean, they’re here as role models.”
“So no one would be happy to find out a faculty member has a tarnished reputation, even a—what do they call them?—youthful indiscretion. You know. Something like a drug arrest in undergraduate school.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Forte, I’ve been impolite. I neglected to ask your line of work.”
“I’m a professional investigator.”
“Professional? Are you a police officer? Or a federal agent?”
I shook my head. “Private.”
Color drained from Willoughby’s face like sand through an egg timer. “Did the Meiers send you?”
“The Meiers have no idea I’m here, and they never will. That’s going to be part of our deal.”
“Lisa Meier stays in school.”
“You said the Meiers didn’t send you.”
I smiled without teeth.
“A marijuana arrest thirty years ago—with probation, I might add—is hardly going to cost me my job. I’m sure many Yates parents avoided such a charge themselves only through luck, given our society’s conflicting attitudes.” Already waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“No argument from me. Not even I’d hold that against you. That pandering thing, though. Pimping out the girls in school and taking a cut, that’s different.”
“I was not a pimp! What happened there was—”
“A felony.” I left the word to stink on his desk. “Sentence suspended, no doubt thanks to your well-connected family. To be fair, no one was hurt. The girls all entered into it willingly. For all I know they came to you after the word got out you had something going. Still, you were a convicted whoremonger, and I’ll bet it’s not on your resume. Or your application. Is lying on your application a firing offense here?”
His voice was a whisper. “That happened thirty years ago. I realized my mistakes. Changed my life. If that doesn’t count for anything, then everything we do here—teaching boys and girls to be men and women—is meaningless.”
“I agree. I expect the parents and trustees may well be liberal enough to agree with us. Your gambling problem…”
“I do not have a gambling problem.”
“I can see how you might look at it that way. What you have, in fact, is a losing problem. Second mortgage on the house, stacks of credit card receipts for Vegas, the boats in Joliet. Even Tunica. Mississippi? Really? You’re the one with the Ph.D. in English. Maybe you know a classier phrase than ‘degenerate gambler,’ but that’s the one that sticks in my mind.”
Willoughby was pale as winter. “What do you want?”
“Lisa Meier stays in school. At Thursday’s meeting you’ll announce a change of heart. Tell them how among the things Yates needs to embody is compassion. Dress it up however you want. But she gets a pass.”
“The Meiers didn’t send you.” No doubt in his voice.
“I told you that already. Twice.”
“You’d ruin me—ruin my life, my family—for people you don’t even know?”
“You have my name. You know what I do for a living.” I nodded toward his computer. “Google me. I’ll wait.”
Willoughby tapped keys and clicked. His pallor grew. Snuck peeks at me as he read.
“Don’t miss the good stuff. Google my name, plus ‘Licati.’ Then try ‘Volkov’ and ‘Obersdorfer.’ I have time.”
I don’t think he got any farther than Volkov. “You’re threatening my life?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Everyone there, it was him or me. I just want you to know that ruining your life won’t cost me two seconds’ sleep, not with all the other stuff my conscience has rattling around in it. Lest you get the idea of calling what you think is a bluff.”
Willoughby stared at the monitor. “We straight?” I said. He nodded, still transfixed. “I want to hear it.”
“Yes, we’re straight.”
“Yes, we’re straight on what?”
He tried for indignant, too scared to pull it off. “Yes, we’re straight that Lisa Meier will be allowed to stay in school to graduate with her class.”
I walked to the door without shaking hands. Paused at the threshold. “And I’m not going to have to come back here because I heard she’s been singled out for any reason.”
I had to listen hard to hear him. “No. Please leave.”
Bad Samaritan drops January 22 from Down & Out Books. You can pre-order before then or buy it for real starting Monday.