The new school year had Nathan feeling cautiously optimistic; Susan was a senior now, and God willing, going to graduate. He himself was looking forward to teaching three periods of US History, one of AP history and one study hall instead of the soul-numbing tedium of administrative duties from last year.
And matters at Western Summit High overall were . . . better. Part of that was Bartlett of course, and part of it was the aftermath of Bartlett. Whatever the case, a summer of reflection and recuperation had helped too, and now with September marching forward, Nathan felt confident that life might finally have some depth to it again.
Therefore he wasn't prepared for the notice pinned above the teacher's mailboxes that directed all of the faculty to head over to the gym. Traditionally the teacher workdays at the start of school were for staff meetings and general room set-up; a chance to review the district policies and air out the facilities before the pimply angst-drenched student body descended for another year of learning. This break in routine made him suspicious.
"What the hell is this all this about?" he asked Newton Cortese, who coached football and ran the PE department.
"You got me," came the grumpy reply. Newt stood six foot three and had a voice that sounded as if it came from his ankles and had to force its way through a brillo pad in the process. "Probably some damned district pow-wow. Hope to Christ they're not thinking about putting those damned cameras back up. Summer good?"
"Pretty good, thanks," Nathan nodded. It had been, too. He and Suze had done a road trip to Far Rockaway, and taken care of a lot of issues between them in the process. It wasn't all worked out, but things were a hell of a lot better. They'd even sung together on the drive back, in fact.
"Good. Let's get this shit over with," Newt rumbled, and led the way into the gymnasium, shouldering through the glass doors, Nathan trailing behind him.
People loitered about in cliques and clusters, catching up and gossiping. Nathan recognized most of the faculty: Mitzi Rothberg, the nurse; Keith Wozenak, head of the math department; Gwen Henderson, head of Language Arts; Jorge Molino, chemistry teacher. There were a few new faces too, but before Nathan could ask around, a district suit came forward, officiously calling for everyone's attention.
"Thank you and welcome back," the suit intoned. "All right, let's get started, shall we? My name is Mitch Allen, and I'm here to lead you this morning through some exercises to help promote team building . . ."
This was met with hoots of disbelief and several cynical stares, Nathan's among them. Next to him, Newt snorted. "Aw Jesus! One little riot and now we're paying for it with this crap?"
"I'm guessing that the union won't let the district dock our pay," Nathan surmised quickly."Neither group wants the negative PR, but they DO want to send a message here."
"Yeah," Newt sourly observed. "And the message is 'Bend over, bitches.'"
"Something like that," Nathan sighed, feeling a sense of guilt returning.
In front of them, Mitch Allen was still talking, his expression annoyed at the response that greeted his announcement. "Look, I know you folks aren't enthusiastic about this, but today is mandated by the superintendant, and getting pissy about it isn't going to make the time pass any faster, so let's get through it and sign off. Pair up, people—"
Nathan looked at Newt, but at that moment Gwen swooped in and snagged the coach, her expression coy as she caught his sleeve. "Please?"
Newt shot an apologetic look at Nathan, who nodded and turned to look at the rest of the prospects now left.
A short blonde glanced up, and Nathan blinked, surprised when she winked at him. Moving forward, she held out a little hand; it was warm and strong.
"Jones," she murmured.
"Ah, Gardener," he replied, "Nathan Gardener. I'm sorry, I didn't catch your first name?"
"Just Jones," she replied with a quick smile.
Nathan cocked his head, but before he could inquire further, Mitch began directing traffic again, moving around. "Okay, this is a little exercise about reading body language; it's called two truths and one lie. Think of three things to tell your partner, and as the name implies, two should be true and one untrue. Put them in any order you like, and take turns seeing whether you can spot the falsehood. Don't go for outrageous here, because the point is to be able to pick up on the other person's unspoken cues . . ."
Nathan thought hard for a moment, following Jones to one side of the gym and standing awkwardly as she turned to face him. She had curly hair, he noted; past her shoulders, and slightly messy, in a shade of ash blonde.
"Would you like to go first?" she asked him.
"Sure," Nathan drew in a breath. "Uhm, do I just say all three things at once, or is there a space in between where you get to guess?"
"Good question," Jones sighed. She held up a finger and moved off towards Mitch, who looked as if he was fielding the same question from a few other teachers as well.
"One at a time, and give your reasons why you think it's the truth or the lie, people. The point is to hone those non-verbal cues here," came the impatient order. "Think of it as the ultimate bluff if you're the speaker, and the ultimate interrogation if you're the listener."
"Oh fun," Nathan muttered. Jones had returned, and was brushing a loose strand out of her eyes as she nodded for him to start. "Okay, first of all, I shot up a six hundred dollar boat last year."
That was true, he knew. The radio-controlled yacht had taken more than one bullet in the course of events last year, and why nobody had called the cops on him was still something Nathan was grateful about.
Jones stared at him a moment, her expression shifting from surprised to slightly delighted.
"True . . ." she murmured in a slow drawl. "Weirdly, that sounds like an honest admission."
Nathan nodded, fighting down the impulse to explain and feeling exceedingly foolish. Why the hell had he chosen to reveal THAT little tidbit, God only knew.
"I like a man with a wild streak," Jones told him.
Caught off-guard, Nathan stared at her and she waved her hand in a little encouraging gesture. He cleared his throat, thinking quickly.
"I love Cheerios," he blurted. "Not in milk, just straight out of the box in big disgusting handfuls, crunching them up and letting my cheeks puff out so I look like a chipmunk heading into November."
He watched her carefully, cheered by the slow disintegration of her neutral expression into a helpless snort of giggles. She tossed her head back, curls flying, and Nathan smiled for the first time all morning.
"T-T-True," she managed to gasp, "That's too detailed to be a lie unless you're teaching creative writing, Nathan—may I call you Nathan?"
"Sure," he nodded, surprised she'd asked. "And no, I teach history . . . now."
Again with the awkward confessions, Nathan chided himself. He braced himself for her inevitable question about what he used to do before, but Jones surprised him by not asking it.
"All right, Mr. Cheerio-cheeks, by default the last one is going to be your lie, so you might as well give it a shot."
Nathan caught her gaze, dimly aware that other pairs around them were laughing and finishing up their first rounds, so he braced himself once more.
"I am . . . happily married."
Jones kept her gaze linked with his, and said nothing, but it was the way she said nothing that left him feeling slightly bolstered. She nodded.
Then she blinked and drew herself up—what there was of her anyway—and spoke quietly.
"I was once stuck in an industrial-sized clothes dryer for two hours."
He could see it, actually. She was fairly compact and probably flexible as well. Nathan wanted like *hell* to know the circumstances, but given that Jones hadn't asked for details on his statements, it was only fair play to do the same for her.
"Yes of course you were," he nodded solemnly. "No argument with that admission."
She chuffed, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes, looking slightly miffed. "No fooling you, huh?"
"I work," Nathan pointed out, "with teenagers. They've made me jaded in the world of stupid human tricks."
"Fine. I used to teach CIA agents," Jones sighed. "Humorless men who needed to be able to recognize a Mondrian from a Matisse, and learn that the Han Dynasty wasn't the lunch special at the Purple Pagoda. Cultural enrichment for better sleeper camouflage, they called it out at Langley."
"Lie," Nathan laughed, keeping his voice low. "That sort of thing would be handled by military intelligence through liaisons with cultural attaches. Besides, spies work with data and technology; they've got nothing to do with culture OR intelligence. So *you're* the one teaching creative writing?"
"I've said too much," Jones murmured with a twisted grin and drew in a breath, "All right, last one."
"Which by default is going to be the truth," Nathan nodded. "Go for it."
"Mmmmmmm. You'd make a terrible sexual fantasy," Jones told him in a low tone. "I'd never think of you in dirty ways late at night after a few glasses of wine."
"Wait, wait—!" Nathan spluttered, jolted by her tone and mischievous flutter of eyelashes. He pointed an accusing finger at her. "Okay, now that's--"
"A lie? See, here's the problem with this game, Nathan—you can guess, but my confirmations or denials—well, those can be lies too, right?"
She had him there, Nathan realized, his face red. He'd been so smug that he hadn't bothered to watch her as carefully as he should have, and now if what she said was a lie . . .
"Okay, now that we've all broken the ice and had some time to consider our comments, you can see that communication is a big factor for your staff and students," Mitch interrupted. "Let's all move over to the auditorium and I'll introduce your new principal and the curriculum agenda before we get onto the next exercise."
Nathan thought. It was easy to slip into a seat in the semi-darkness and consider his circumstances for the moment. Newt dropped into the seat next to him, groaning under his breath. "She wants me, Nate. You have to run interference or by God Gwen's going to be stalking me again this year."
"Get real," Nate muttered absently as he studied the back of a certain blonde head. "You two will do what you do every year—play cat and mouse through Christmas, get drunk and sleep together after the holiday party, and then have lots of sex until right after Easter when either you or Gwen decide you're getting too serious and you need more space."
Newt sighed deeply. "That predictable, huh?"
"You're consenting adults and I'm not paid to provide therapy, Newt. All I'm saying is the two of you have it down to a science."
Whatever Newt might have replied died away as both he and Nathan watched someone step to the podium and clear his throat.
"Your principal for this year," Mitch Allen waved to the figure, "Curtis Sedgwick."
Nathan decided right then and there that he really needed a drink.
*** *** ***
Jones listened politely to the welcoming remarks, but her thoughts lay elsewhere, and in any case she already knew the majority of the information being presented, thanks to good research. Western Summit wasn't huge—a student body of four hundred to be precise, with a middle of the road academic track and an upwardly mobile demographic for upstate New York. Nothing spectacular here, which was just what she wanted.
She knew all about Sedgwick too; a mediocre bureaucrat who'd been moved down from his previous glory as superintendant to keep an eye on Western Summit after their quote riot unquote last year.
And she knew a bit about both Charlie Bartlett and Nathan Gardner as well. Local news had covered the former principal while local gossip had filled her in about Bartlett.
Charlie, it seemed, had provided all sorts of therapy to all sorts of students, and while drugs were no longer in the scenario, the ongoing schedule of visits to the boy's restroom seemed to a given.
Several of the staff members she'd met actually approved of it.
"A lot of them need therapy anyway, especially Mr. Bivins," nurse Rothenberg had snorted around her cigarette. "That bully's smart and needs a socially acceptable goal in life—if being the office manager for an unlicensed, underage psychologist meets that, then so be it."
Jones heard that Charlie had managed a psychology internship over the summer, so chances were that he'd be coming into the school year even more confident than last, and she wondered how things would go.
As for herself, well, ducking out this far from Langley and Nick seemed like the best thing for everyone. He might find her, if he wanted to, but Jones hoped he wouldn't. She needed to get her fingers back into clay and her brushes into paint, otherwise she'd go nuts.
So here she was, renting a house on the edge of town and cautiously learning her way around. So far folks had been nice, and the few staff members Jones had met already were kind.
The only drawback was cleaning out the former art teacher's storage closets, which were beyond disgusting and probably toxic. Hefflemeyer hadn't been too concerned with cleanliness or labels, and twice Jones had considered calling the EPA about unmarked buckets.
Still, he'd left behind a lovely classroom, with huge windows and stone floors. Jones loved the way the light filled it.
She sighed, and her thoughts moved from the classroom to the man a few rows behind her in the auditorium; the man she'd found instantly attractive, much to her chagrin. Nathan Gardner looked as if he could use a friend, and that appealed to her greatly. Part of that was her nurturing instinct of course, and part of it was that it mirrored her own situation.
Jones smiled to herself and tried to concentrate on what the new principal was saying.