Most Wanted

Lisa Scottoline

Most Wanted

Copyright © 2016

For my amazing daughter, Francesca

The cradle rocks above an abyss…

– Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

Chapter One

Christine Nilsson walked to the closed door with anticipation. She knew everyone was waiting for her inside the teachers’ lounge, ready to surprise her. She’d guessed what they were up to, leaving their classrooms after the dismissal bell, then her principal summoning her for a “quick meeting,” even though there was no such thing at Nutmeg Hill Elementary. It was sweet of them to throw her a good-bye party, especially on the last week of school when everybody was crazy busy. She felt grateful and loved all of her fellow teachers, except Melissa Rue, Resident Blabbermouth.

Christine reached the lounge door and plastered on a smile, then stopped herself before she turned the knob. She could manufacture enthusiasm like a professionally cheery machine, but that wouldn’t do. Her friends knew the difference between Teacher Enthusiasm and Real Enthusiasm, and she didn’t want to fake anything. She was going to truly enjoy every minute of her party, which was the end of her teaching career, at least for now. She had finally gotten pregnant and she was going to stay home with the baby, embracing her New Mom status like an immigrant to the United States of Parenthood.

The notion flooded her with a hormonal wave of happiness, plus residual Clomid. Pregnancy may have been a breeze for other couples, but it had been a three-year struggle for Christine and her husband Marcus. Thank God it was over, and she was looking forward to painting a nursery, buying a crib, and fetishizing motherhood in general. She’d read the baby books and visualized her baby at its current stage, two months old and curled like the most adorable shrimp ever. She couldn’t even wait for her baby bump, so she could wear ugly maternity clothes. A smile spread naturally across her face, and she knew it would remain in place throughout the party, if not forever. She opened the lounge door.

“Surprise!” everybody shouted, a gaggle of female teachers with end-of-the-day grins, their makeup worn off and their hair slipping from ponytail holders. There were only two men, Jim Paulsen, who was rail-thin and taught gym, so he was obviously called Slim Gym, and bearded Al Miroz, who taught sixth-grade math and was the faculty trivia expert, whom they called Trivi-Al. Bowls of pretzels and potato chips sat atop the counter next to paper plates, Solo cups, and liter-size jugs of Diet Coke. The damp aroma of brewing coffee permeated the air, and the bulletin board held notices from the district, under a sign: The best way for students not to act like the school year is over is for teachers not to act like the school year is over. Under that, someone had written, GET OVER YOURSELF!

Everyone hugged Christine, filling the small windowless lounge, which had a few fake-wood tables and chairs, a donated coffeemaker, an old microwave, and a brand-new TV playing cable news on mute. They’d won the TV as a consolation prize in a contest for Teachers’ Lounge Makeover, but they’d deserved first place. Burn in hell, Dunstan Elementary.

“Thanks, everyone!” Christine said, overwhelmed by their kindness, and she felt how much she would miss them, after eight years at Nutmeg Hill. She was the reading specialist on the Instructional Support Team, helping students who had reading issues, and she’d grown closer to her friends on the faculty since her fertility drama. They all knew bits and pieces of her story and they’d been kind enough to ignore her premature hot flashes from Pergonal or to schedule meetings around her doctors’ appointments. Christine was grateful to all of them except Melissa Rue, who’d caught her throwing up in the ladies’ room and blabbed about her pregnancy. Everyone had assumed that one of Christine’s fertility procedures had been successful, but only her best friend, Lauren Weingarten, knew the whole truth.

“Girl!” Lauren shouted, her big arms outstretched, in a loose white blouse and black cropped pants, enveloping Christine in an embrace that smelled of fruit-scented Sharpies. Lauren was the Academic Coach at school, so she taught the faculty whichever new curriculum came down from Common Core, which they all called Common Enemy. Lauren’s oversized personality made her the most popular member of the faculty: their Pinterest Queen, Edcamp Organizer, and Head Energizer Bunny. This, even though Magic Marker covered her arms like defensive wounds.

“Thanks so much, honey,” Christine said, touched, when Lauren finally let her go.

“Were you really surprised?” Lauren’s dark eyes narrowed, a skeptical brown. She barely had crow’s-feet, but she had beginner laugh lines because she loved to joke around. Her dark brown hair was pulled back, trailing in loose curls down her back.

“Totally,” Christine answered, smiling.

“Yeah, right.” Lauren snorted, her full lips curving into a grin, and just then there was a knock on the door.

“What’s that?” Christine asked, turning.

“Aha! Now you will be surprised!” Lauren crossed the room and opened the door with a flourish. “Ta-da!”

“Hey, everybody!” Christine’s husband Marcus entered to applause and laughter, ducking slightly as he came through the doorway, more by habit than necessity. Marcus was six-foot-two and 215 pounds, built like the college pitcher he had once been. He must have come straight from the airport because he still had on his lightweight gray suit, though his tie was loosened.

“Babe!” Christine burst into startled laughter.

“Surprise!” Marcus gave Christine a big hug, wrapping his long arms around her, and Christine buried herself against his wilted oxford shirt, its light starch long gone.

“I thought you were in Raleigh.”

“It was all a ruse.” Marcus let her go, meeting her eye in a meaningful way. “Your boss gets the credit. I just do what I’m told.”

“Well, thanks.” Christine smiled back at him, reading between the lines, that the party was the principal’s idea and he had gone along with it. She turned to Pam, who was coming forward holding a flat box.

“We’ll miss you, Christine, but a baby is the only acceptable reason to leave us.” Pam beamed as she set the box down on the table. “I brought this from a bakery near me. No grocery-store sheet cake for this occasion.”

“Aw, how nice.” Christine went over to the table, with Marcus following, and everybody gathered around. She lifted the lid, and inside was a vanilla frosted cake that read in purple script, Good-bye and Good luck, Christine! Underneath was a drawing of an old-school stork in a hat, carrying a baby in a diaper.

“This is too cute!” Christine laughed, though she felt Marcus stiffen beside her. She knew this couldn’t have been easy for him, but he was putting on a brave face.

Pam looked over at Christine and Marcus. “The stork is okay, right? I know this isn’t your baby shower, but I couldn’t resist.”

“Of course it’s okay,” Christine answered for them both.

Pam smiled, relieved. “Great!” She looked up at Marcus. “Marcus, so, do you want a boy or a girl?”

“I want a golfer,” Marcus shot back, and everybody laughed.

Lauren handed over the cake knife. “Christine, will you do the honors?”

“Grab your plates, kids!” Christine eyeballed the cake, then started cutting pieces.

“Isn’t somebody going to make a toast?” Melissa called out from the back of the crowd. “Marcus, how about you?”

“Sure, right, of course. Yes, I’ll propose the toast.” Marcus flashed a broad smile, his blue eyes shining, but Christine knew what he was really thinking.

“Go for it, honey!” she said, to encourage him. “They hear enough from me.”

Lauren snorted. “Ain’t that the truth.”

Everybody chuckled, holding their plates and looking at Marcus expectantly. They didn’t know him as well as the other husbands because he traveled so much, and Christine could tell they were curious about him from the interest in their expressions. Lauren used to joke that Christine had the Faculty Alpha Husband, since Marcus was an architectural engineer who owned his own firm in Hartford and probably made a better living than many of the faculty spouses, most of whom were also educators. The running joke was that it took two teachers’ salaries to make one living wage. But Lauren had stopped making her alpha-husband joke when it turned out that Marcus was completely infertile.

He’d been devastated by the diagnosis of azoospermia, which meant, literally, that he produced no sperm. It had come as a shock after they had been trying for a year and couldn’t get pregnant, so Christine’s OB-GYN referred her to Dr. Davidow, an RE, or reproductive endocrinologist. Christine had automatically assumed that she was the problem, since she was thirty-three years old and her periods had never been super regular, but tests revealed that she was perfectly healthy. Dr. Davidow had broken the news to them, choosing his words carefully, cautioning that male infertility was “a couple’s joint problem” and neither husband nor wife was “to blame.”

Marcus had taken the diagnosis ...