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Lindsey Sloan hesitated, her knuckles hovering just beneath the metal plaque on the door. David Campbell and then below the name in smaller letters, Principal.
Although it was unusual for Dave to leave a message with the school secretary asking her to come to his office, Lindsey believed she knew what her boss wanted to talk about. Randolph-Lowen was for up for accreditation review this year. He probably wanted to ask her to head up the school committee.
That wasn't something she wanted to do, but she knew she would end up saying yes to his request. Which was why she was standing outside the door to his office as if she had been called here for punishment.
Taking a deep breath, she tapped lightly and then, following Melanie's instructions, turned the knob. Dave, who was seated behind his desk, looked up.
"Melanie said to come on in," Lindsey offered. Although she'd followed the instructions she'd been given, as Dave stood, he seemed slightly annoyed by the interruption. Or maybe, she realized as she continued to study his expression, he was annoyed because of the presence of the dark-haired man seated on this side of his desk. He, too, got to his feet as Lindsey stepped inside the office.
He was no one she recognized. A parent with a complaint about something she'd done? Since it was only the second week of school, she'd given out no grades. If he was here to complain, it must be about an assignment. She mentally ran through the ones she'd handed out to her classes, but she couldn't imagine why any of them would bring a father to the school. Not in person.
"That's fine, Lindsey," Dave said. "Want to close that?" The frissonof anxiety she'd felt when she realized there was someone waiting with Dave escalated. She used the excuse of securing the door to hide it. When she turned back to face the two men, her "meet the parents" smile was firmly in place.
"Lindsey, this is Lieutenant Nolan. Detective, Lindsey Sloan, our gifted coordinator."
That thin, hard mouth probably didn't do much smiling, Lindsey thought. And he obviously didn't intend to make an exception for her. His eyes, as dark as his hair, continued to study her as she attempted to retain her own smile.
"Detective?" she questioned.
"With the sheriff's department."
"And…you want to see me?"
"The lieutenant's in charge of the investigation into the church fires," Dave interjected.
Lindsey's gaze automatically shifted to her principal as he made his explanation. Almost immediately she refocused it on the detective. She realized that his eyes had never left her face, undoubtedly because he was noting her reaction to what Dave had just said.
Three rural black churches in the county had been torched on separate nights last July. Although no additional fires had occurred during August, the initial three continued to get top billing in both the state and national media.
"I'm sorry. You must think I'm very slow," Lindsey said,
"but I still don't understand why you want to see me."
"We've been working with the FBI to develop a profile of the people who set those fires." Nolan's voice was deep, its accent decidedly not local.
Nor was his appearance. The dark suit was too stylishly cut. And probably too expensive for this setting. His hair was a little long. Not nearly conservative enough for someone associated with local law enforcement. She wondered how the good old boys in the department related to Lieutenant Nolan.
Of course, her idle curiosity had no relevance to this discussion. And based on the intensity of the detective's gaze, she had the distinct impression that she'd better get focused on what Nolan was saying rather than on what he looked like before something important slipped by her.
"And that profile led you to me?"
She thought she'd figured out where this was going, but she wanted him to put it into words. At least she now understood Dave's uneasiness.
"Actually, it led us to the students you teach." Randolph-Lowen wasn't the only high school in the county. It was, however, the one designated to provide services for the gifted. A few kids even came from outside the county because they didn't have access to appropriate resources at the schools to which they were zoned.
"Are you saying your profile indicates the arsonists have high IQs?" All those old wives tales about that supposedly thin line between genius and insanity reared their ugly heads.
Before she could begin to dispute them, Nolan added, "And that they're young. White. Male."
Lindsey glanced at Dave, wondering why he wasn't objecting to this. Profiling wasn't a science. The description the detective had just given with such an air of confidence might be wildly inaccurate.
Besides, even if there were something to what he'd just said, there was nothing the school could do to help him narrow his search. She wasn't going to start suggesting that one child or another might be involved in something as highprofile as this crime. That would be a quick way to a suspension followed by a lawsuit.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I don't think I can help you." She'd already turned toward the door when Dave stopped her.
"Lindsey, this isn't what you think."
"Then what is it?" She looked from one to the other.
"The people who developed the profile believe this is a thrill crime," Nolan said. "Something designed to get the adrenaline pumping."
Despite her doubts about the methodology, she thought that was probably an accurate description. She just didn't see what it had to do with her. Or with her students. "And?"
"Once they've experienced that rush," Nolan said, "they're going to want it again."
"And you think other churches will be burned."
Even given her animosity toward the investigative process he'd described, she didn't want that to happen. Not only did those small congregations suffer a huge emotional and financial loss, the entire region had received yet another black eye through the lawlessness of a few individuals.
"We can almost guarantee it."
"Even if I had a suspicion that any of my students were involved—and I assure you I don't—I wouldn't feel comfortable discussing those with the police." "Those churches were all within a twenty-five mile radius of this high school. If you take a map—"
"I'm sure you have. Believe me, we all understand that the people of this county are suspects. But even if this community is at the center of the area where the fires occurred, that doesn't mean any student from this school set them. Nor does your profile, no matter who composed it."
"Profiling gives us a place to start. This is it."
Lindsey looked at Dave, wanting him to defend the kids of this community. It wasn't that none of them had ever been in trouble. Or that she thought they couldn't be. Not after ten years in the profession. But she also wasn't stupid enough to believe that just because the school sat in the geographic center of the area where the arsons had occurred, that meant the people involved in them attended it.
Dave shrugged, seeming to indicate he was bowing to what he saw as inevitable. Maybe Nolan had shared more information with him. Considering what he'd shared with her, however, Lindsey wasn't willing to be sucked in. Not until one or the other of them leveled with her.
"Anything other than that profile and the proximity to the fires that makes you think my students might be involved?"
There was a flash of something in those dark eyes. The emotion was quickly masked, but not fast enough that she didn't wonder if he was laughing at her reluctance to believe her kids could be involved in something like this.
"Those aren't enough?" His tone was devoid of sarcasm.
"Not for me, I'm afraid. Look, if I thought any of my students were involved, I might feel differently. But as of now I have no reason to think they are. I've had no reason to even think about the possibility until you showed up this morning."
"And if you did have a reason?"
"I'd talk to someone I trusted about it." "Like Dr. Campbell?"
Although Dave hadn't finished his doctorate, neither of them corrected him. "Only if I couldn't resolve those feelings in my own mind." Lindsey said.
"My best advice, Ms. Sloan, is that if you develop "those feelings," you don't try to resolve them. Here's my card. I'd appreciate a call if you have any reason to…shall we say…reflect on the possibility that our profile has merit."
The phrasing was careful, perhaps intended not to offend. The look in his eyes was not quite in keeping with it.
Lindsey accepted the card he held out, making a show of looking down at it. The first thing she noted was his first name. Jace. The second thing she noted was something far more disturbing: the fact she had been wondering about that.
Jace Nolan. Who was very obviously from somewhere far from here. And very much outside the norm of men she knew.
She raised her eyes from the card, again finding his on her face. "Is that all?"
"You can call me if you think of anything I should know." Not exactly what she'd meant, but clearly a dismissal. She quickly took advantage of it. "Thanks. I'll do that."
She turned and walked to the door, conscious that they were both watching her. When she'd closed it, she leaned against its solid wood, releasing a breath as she thought about the interview that had just passed.
Before it seemed possible that either of the men inside the room had had time to walk across it, the door opened behind her. Slightly off balanced, she tried to get out of the way of the man who emerged.
"Sorry." Jace Nolan put his hand under her elbow in an attempt to steady her.
Now try to explain why you didn't. "No harm done. Have a good day, Ms. Sloan."
With a slight nod, the detective moved past her and walked into the main office. She continued to watch as he disappeared through the door that led out into the lobby.
"Cops after you, Ms. Sloan?"
She turned to see Steven Byrd lifting the American flag off the top shelf of the hall closet where it was kept. One of her seniors, Steven was responsible for putting the stars and stripes up the outside flagpole every morning and taking it down and folding it properly every afternoon. For most of Randolph-Lowen's students, even some of those in her gifted program, that single act was enough to classify him as a nerd.
"You know him?" she asked, wondering how Steven could be familiar enough with the local police to recognize Nolan.
"I was sitting in my car when he got out of his. County tags. Besides, he looks like a cop. Glad to know my powers of observation are as well-developed as I thought." Steven grinned at her, blue eyes shining through his glasses.
"So you were guessing."
"Only until you were kind enough to verify it. What'd you do? Run a red light?"
"Something like that," she hedged.
Neither Dave nor Nolan had cautioned her to keep what they'd told her to herself, but it wasn't the kind of thing she would ever share with a student. Not even one like Steven, whom she considered trustworthy.
"Naw, they'd send a uniform for that. So it's probably not about you. That means it's about us."
"Students. Maybe your students? And if I had to guess—" "I think you've done enough guessing," Lindsey said, putting a hint of classroom firmness into her voice.
It wasn't lost on Steven. "Okay. I can keep my mouth shut. You know that. I'm not surprised they showed up here."
Unable to resist, Lindsey asked, "Why?" "The usual suspects. They always focus on kids for something like that. Especially if the fires are copycat things like the news says."
The previous spate of fires had been the work of a few college kids without a political agenda. Although those had not focused exclusively on black churches, that was probably a geographical consideration more than anything else. And the three buildings that had been set on fire in this county were the only ones so conveniently isolated.
"Is that what you think?"
"I think this is just as stupid as those were. The only difference is that in this case, they knew when to stop."
That was part of the local speculation. That the arsonists had simply run out of churches they could torch without getting caught. And apparently they'd learned something from the earlier fires. According to the papers, there had been little physical evidence found at the recent ones.
"You hear any talk about the fires?"
"Sure," Steven acknowledged, holding the folded flag against his chest as he closed the closet door with his elbow.
"A lot of talk. A lot of guessing. Nothing that made me pay attention. Got to get this up."
She nodded, moving aside to let him go by her in the narrow hallway. As she watched him follow the route the detective had taken, Lindsey thought about what both had said. She almost turned back to Dave's door, but the first bell sounded, reminding her that her room was locked.
The school day had officially begun. Any other discussion with anyone about the surprise visitor she'd had this morning would have to wait until after it was done.