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Copyright © 2011 Kate White
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She sensed it as soon as she began to walk across the quad that night.
The weather was practically balmy, weird for late October,
and yet the air carried the pungent smell of wood smoke.
But that wasn't the reason things seemed strange to her.
It was the deserted pathways. Though
Phoebe wasn't really used to the place yet, she expected to find
more than just a few people crossing campus at eight o'clock on a
She'd veered left, planning to exit through the eastern gate,
when with a start she discovered where everyone was. About forty
peopleboth students and facultywere congregated in front of
Curry Hall. In the two months she'd been at Lyle College, she'd
noticed that kids often relaxed outside this particular dorm, tossing
Frisbees or lolling on the slope of the balding lawn, but tonight
everyone was standing, their arms folded and their backs stiff, as
if poised for news.
As she drew closer, she saw what was drawing their attention:
two campus police, as well as a local town cop, were speaking to
an auburn-haired girl who appeared to be fighting back tears. The
dean of studentsTom somethingwas there, too, head lowered
and listening intently to the girl.
Phoebe's first reaction was to just keep moving. There were
things she needed to do in Pennsylvania, but getting involved in
someone else's drama wasn't one of them.
She started to walk away and then stopped. She knew that
ten minutes later she'd regret not finding out what all the fuss was
She edged back toward the crowd and sidled up next to two
young men on the fringe, who also looked like they'd just stopped
to check out the action.
"What's going on?" she asked the one closest to her. He glanced
at her and shrugged.
"No ideaI just got here," he said. He turned to the guy to his
right, whose blond hair was closely cropped. "Any idea what's up?"
"Not sure," the other guy said, "but I think it has something to
do with this girl named Lily Mack. That's her roommate over there."
Phoebe took a moment to process the name. It wasn't someone
in either of the two classes she taught.
"Thanks," she said and snaked toward the front of the crowd,
hoping to score more info there. A second later she realized she
was now standing directly behind Val Porter, whose long, prematurely
gray hair gleamed, even in the dark. Val was a women's studies
professor with an office just down the hall from the one Phoebe
was squatting in this semester, and though on the surface Val was
courteous enough, Phoebe had detected a mild disdain ever since
their first encounter. Maybe, Phoebe had thought wryly, Val thinks
I set the women's movement back on its ass by my behavior.
Phoebe started to shift positions, not in the mood for a Val
moment tonight. But uncannily the woman seemed to sense her
presence, and she turned around. The movement stirred the scent
of patchouli from Val's skin.
"Hello, Phoebe," Val said. There was a slightly disapproving
tone to her voice, as if Phoebe had burst in late for an important
"Hi, Val," she said pleasantly. Her MO at Lyle was to play nice,
not create any unnecessary ripples. She'd had enough of those in
her life this past year. "Is there some kind of problem?"
"A student is missing," Val said bluntly. "Lily Macka junior.
Her roommate reported it to the campus police a little while ago.
No one's seen her since last night."
"How awful," Phoebe said. The revelation caught her like the
nick from a razor, and she found herself grabbing a breath. "Well,
kids this age can be pretty irresponsible at times," she said, recovering.
"Is it possible she's just gone off with a new boyfriend?"
Val gave her a withering look, suggesting that Phoebe didn't
know a damn thing about "kids this age."
"Anything is possible, of course," Val said dryly. "But according
to Tom Stockton, she's not the type to just go AWOL."
"I take it someone's called Glenda?" Phoebe asked, referring to
Glenda Johns, the president of the college.
"Of course. This could get very, very messy."
"How do you mean?" Phoebe asked.
"This girl's boyfriend disappeared this past spring. He was a
senior here, and he took off without a trace."
"Will you excuse me?" Val said abruptly. "I better check in with
Tom and see if there's anything he'd like me to do."
It was more than a dismissal. It implied that Phoebe's help
wouldn't be neededever.
"Good luck," Phoebe said, keeping her voice even. "Let me
know if I can do anything."
Val started to turn but then looked back, giving Phoebe's outfit
the once-over. That's rich, Phoebe thought. Val's fashion style
could only be described as high priestess meets seductresslots of
crushed velvet, jangling bracelets, and deeply scooped necklines
and yet she always eyed Phoebe's clothes as if her fairly classic
style didn't pass muster.
"Doing something fun tonight?" Val asked in a tone that
suggested she hoped the answer was no.
Phoebe was tempted to deliver a zinger, like, "Actually, I have a
hot date with the captain of the men's lacrosse team," but that was
precisely the kind of ripple-making she needed to avoid.
"Just grabbing a bite to eat," she said instead. " 'Night."
Phoebe turned away and continued down the path across the
quad, heading east once again. Lyle wasn't exactly a gorgeous
college. All the buildings were either nondescript red brick or
concrete, without an inch of ivy shooting up their sides. But there
were dozens of big maples on campus, planted when the school
was built in the 1950s, and at night, illuminated by moonlight and
streetlamps, they looked majestic and almost magical.
As Phoebe hurried along the path, she thought about the missing
girl. She also considered the impact the situation could have on
both the college and Glenda Johns, who was not only the president
but also Phoebe's friend. Two and a half years ago Glenda had
been recruited by Lyle College to boost its lackluster reputation
and flabby endowment, and though she'd been making progress,
it had been tough going. A second missing student in a year would
Outside East Gate, Phoebe waited for the traffic light to
change, crossed the street, and then walked three blocks down the
Bridge Street hill to Tony's, a small Italian restaurant she'd discovered
after she'd arrived in Lyle in late August. It was one of those
"land that time forgot" kind of restaurants, with an amateurish wall
mural of Venice, dust-coated plastic ferns, and platters of shrimp
scampi reeking of garlic, but Phoebe found the small, candlelit
rooms to be comforting.
She'd already eaten at Tony's earlier this week and hadn't planned
to go back so soon, but a psychology professor named Duncan Shaw
had more or less forced her hand. The two of them had ended up
on an impromptu committee together, and she'd sensed his interest
in her from the start. Several days ago, to her dismay, he'd asked if
she'd like to join him and a few friends Friday night for dinner. He
was attractive, a little mysterious-looking, even, with his dark beard
and mustache. Engaging, tooaffable without giving too much of
himself awaywith a wry sense of humor. But she was on a self-
imposed sabbatical from anything romantic, so she wasn't going to
be stupid and bite. She'd told him sorry, she had plans tonight, but
thank you, and prayed he'd taken the hint.
She'd originally planned to eat at the bar of a new restaurant at
the edge of town, where the food and ambience were surprisingly
upscale, but now she couldn't take the chance of bumping into
Duncan there. After her last class she'd picked up the ingredients
for a salad with the intention of staying in. But then, feeling too
restless to face a night alone in the tiny house she was renting,
she decided she'd sneak off to Tony's. She figured it was the last
place in the world Duncan and his pals would be welcoming the
When she reached the restaurant, she paused for a moment
outside, trying to shake the twinge of melancholy she felt. Metallic
chips in the old sidewalk caught the moonlight and sparkled
like crazy. From a few blocks farther downhill, she could pick up
the smell of the Winamac Rivermuddy, fishy, but rousing in a
strange, earthy way. Sometimes from outside Tony's she could hear
music wafting up from the taverns along River Street, but it was
too early right now. Hopefully, she thought, Lily Mack had hooked
up with a guy last night and spent the day in bed with him, oblivious
to anything but the wild sex she was having.
As Phoebe entered the restaurant, the short, pudgy Tony
greeted her with a bear hug, once again declaring her his favorite
blonde. After her first dinner there, someone had apparently
divulged to him that she was a famous writer from New York City.
Obviously, Phoebe thought, the person had failed to reveal the rest
of the story, or Tony would be far less jolly about seeing her.
He led her to her usual table at the back of the main dining
room, which ran adjacent to the bar area. She slipped off her
trench coat and glanced around the restaurant. It was about three
quarters full, and most of tonight's patrons were well into their
meals. She'd come to learn that people ate insanely early in small
town Pennsylvania. At moments like these she felt like Alice after
she'd slipped down the rabbit hole: everything around her was not
only disturbingly unfamiliar, but it made no sense. Seven months
earlier she'd been living in Manhattan with her partner Alec, just
off the tour for her latest bookHollywood's Badass Girls. She'd
bought herself a beautiful pair of diamond studs to celebrate the
book's sixth week on the New York Times list. Things couldn't have
been sweeter. And then it all came crashing down.
It had started with Alec. One night after dinner, when she
began to clear away the dishes, he'd held up a hand from his seat
at the table and asked her to please wait.
"What's up?" she asked, sitting back down again, predicting
what was coming. He was probably miffed at how distractedand
absentshe'd been during the last leg of her book tour.
"We need to talk," he said slowly.
"O-kay," she replied, slightly disconcerted now.
"I care about you, Phoebe," he said soberly, "and we've had five
great years together."
My God, she thought, is he about to dump me as we sit here
with a platter of chicken bones between us? "What's the matter?"
she demanded, unable to keep the edge out of her voice.
"I've always known you didn't want to get married. And I
"Well Alec, if I remember correctly, you've never wanted to
either," she said.
"I guess. I mean, sure. But . . . I don't know, lately I've
wondered if I may have been wrong thinking that."
The comment stunned her but at the same time eased the
twinge of anxiety she'd begun to feel. "Are you saying you want to
get married?" she asked, smiling a little. But then she saw from the
panic flashing in his eyes that she had it wrong.
"It's not just marriage," he said quickly. "I think I'd like kids,
too. And I know that's a deal breaker for you."
"Well, it's a deal breaker now, certainly. I'm forty-two, and
there's not much chance of me getting pregnant. But let's at least
talk this over. If you're feeling different about certain things, I'm
happy to listen."
But his decision wasn't open to discussion. He'd made up his
mind to move on and move out, to try something new in life. No,
there wasn't another woman, he said. Phoebe had just sat there at
the table, reeling from the shock. She knew things weren't perfect
with them, that their relationship was less than passionate these
days, but she cared about Alec and had never seen this coming.
"I actually thought you might be relieved," he said after a few
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked angrily.
Alec had shrugged. "You haven't seemed quite . . . I don't know,
in the throes of the relationship lately. Even with all your crusading,
you used to still save some energy for me, but not anymore."
Six weeks later he called Phoebe, wanting to let her know
"out of fairness"that he was seeing a thirty-one-year-old woman
at his law firm. No, he swore, nothing had happened while he was
still living with Phoebe, but "to be perfectly honest," he realized
in hindsight there'd been a certain attraction from the beginning.
Phoebe had set the phone down feeling stung and humbled. So
this must be karma, Hollywood style, she had thought. Is this what
I get for calling Jennifer Aniston a Needy Nellie on Entertainment
Excerpted from The Sixes Copyright © 2011 by Kate White. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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