In 'The Sixes,' bestselling author Kate White's protagonist Phoebe Hall takes a teaching job at a small Pennsylvania college, only to find herself in the center of a mystery regarding the murder of a female student. Here's an excerpt.
Something wasn’t right. 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 Friday night.
She’d veered left, planning to exit through the eastern gate, when with a start she discovered where everyone was. About forty people—both students and faculty—were 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 students—tom something—was 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 about.
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 idea—I just got here,” he said. He turned to the guy to his right, whose blond hair was closely cropped. “Any idea what’s up?” he asked.
“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 meeting.
“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 Mack—a 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.” “Do they—” “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 needed—ever.
“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 seductress—lots 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 hardly help.
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, too—affable without giving too much of himself away—with 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 weekend.
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 River—muddy, 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 dinning 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 book—Hollywood’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 distracted—and absent—she’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 accepted that.”
“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 minutes.
“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 Tonight?
She buried herself in work-related projects—research, speeches, TV appearances. But in late May that went off the rails, too. Her editor, Dan, the preppiest gay man she’d ever known, had called her at 9:00 a.m., just as she was sitting down at her desk in her home office. A surprise, because he rarely rolled into the office before ten.
“Have you heard?” he demanded breathlessly the second she answered.
“What? that I’ve been short-listed for the Pulitzer?” Phoebe had asked jokingly. And then, as if her brain was on a two-second delay, she realized his tone had sounded jittery, not gossipy.
“A blogger is saying you plagiarized your last book,” Dan told her. “that you lifted some of the stuff on Angelina Jolie from another writer.”
“That’s totally untrue,” Phoebe had said indignantly. “What writer? Where?”
“Some British chick who writes for a UK Web site. Huffington Post is the one reporting it. But Gawker has already picked it up.”
“Well, it’s a lie. I’ve never taken a thing from another writer.”
But she had. Not intentionally. Over the next weeks, as the nightmare began to unfold, she discovered that a freelance researcher she’d used for the book had typed up notes from some blogs and stupidly placed them in a file of Phoebe’s own typed notes rather than in a research folder. When Phoebe had read the notes months later, it wasn’t hard to mistake them for her own work—the writer actually seemed to be aping a blunt style that Phoebe was known for—and she had incorporated them directly into her manuscript.
More in books
On the advice of spin doctors at a top PR agency, she’d made a statement explaining everything, but the press coverage had been unmerciful and unrelenting, fueled in large part by the glee of the people who’d come off badly in her books. See, one Hollywood agent had declared in an interview, everything Phoebe Hall has ever written is total fabrication.
Thankfully, Phoebe’s publisher accepted her version of events—or at least seemed to—after the blubbering researcher had admitted her error in front of a conference room of executives. They said they were committed to working with Phoebe and had every reason to believe things would blow over, just as they had for authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who’d been in her position. But they wanted to hold off on the paperback edition of the book until the situation cooled down. Meanwhile, the press—especially papers like the New York Post and Web sites like Gawker—kept at it. Reporters had even camped outside her apartment building to hurl questions at her as she came and went, as if she had run a huge Ponzi scheme or stabbed her husband in the heart with an ice pick. Before long her prized gigs—TV appearances on the Today Show and Entertainment Tonight, her own blog on the Daily Beast—were put on hold or dried up entirely.
Her pit bull agent, Miranda, had been blunt but empathetic. After all, she counted on those big advances and had a stake in Phoebe bouncing back.
“You’ll ride this out, Phoebe, don’t worry,” she said. “You’re one of the toughest women I know.”
Was that a compliment? Phoebe wondered.
“Why don’t you go somewhere where you can just chill for a while?” Miranda continued. “Cabo, for instance. That’s where I’d go. And you can finish the proposal for the next book while you’re there.”
Fat chance on Cabo, Phoebe had thought. Thanks to the increased expenses from carrying her apartment alone and the fact that the paperback was on hold, she’d be lucky to swing a trip to Tijuana. Sure, she had built a nice nest egg over the years, but it would be foolish to tap into it now. And what’s more, she hadn’t dared tell Miranda: she didn’t have a clue what the next book was going to be.
And then her old friend Glenda Johns had called with a plan. She suggested Phoebe teach a couple of nonfiction writing classes in place of a professor who’d decided to delay coming back after the birth of her child. It seemed to make all the sense in the world. Phoebe could sublet her apartment and regroup in a sleepy Pennsylvania town away from the prying eyes of the press. And with a clear head she could focus on what her next book should be.
When the waiter arrived, she ordered the grilled chicken with rosemary, one of the few dishes on Tony’s menu that wasn’t up to its eyeballs in sauce. During dinner she made some mental notes about her classes the following week. Once or twice her mind found its way back to the missing girl. Just let her be okay, she thought. Later, as she lingered over coffee, Tony sent over a plate of zabaglione with strawberries. It was delicious, and she ate the entire thing, wondering if all the sugar would make her feel less morose—or perhaps even more so.
“’Night, Tony,” she said after she’d paid her bill and rounded the corner of the dining room. He was standing at the host’s podium with the reservation book, just to the right of the bar. “The zabaglione was divine.”
“For you, I use my finest marsala.”
“I could tell—thank you.”
There were three people at the bar—a middle-aged couple and a solo guy with wavy, dark brown hair, his back directly to her. As she said good-bye to Tony, the guy at the bar turned his head in her direction. She saw recognition in his eyes and didn’t understand why. Then she realized: it was Duncan Shaw. He’d shaved off his mustache and beard in the three days since she’d last seen him.
Instinctively she dropped her mouth open in shock—at seeing him there, and at the change in his appearance. She watched his brown eyes flick to the left, just over her shoulder, checking to see who she’d been eating with. A second later his eyes betrayed his realization that she was alone—and that she’d lied to him about having plans. Damn, she thought. I am totally busted.
He smiled ever so slightly. Unsurprising, she thought. He’s not the sensitive type who’s going to seem wounded.
“Oh, hello,” Phoebe said, flustered. She noticed that in front of him were a half-filled pasta bowl and a nearly empty glass of wine. “What—what happened to your friends?”
“They wanted to drive to Bethlehem for dinner, and I realized I wasn’t up for that big of a night.”
“Look, I feel incredibly awkward,” she said, moving a little closer out of Tony’s earshot. “I don’t want you to think I lied to you.”
He smiled again, a little fuller this time so that it made the skin around his eyes crinkle. Though she guessed he was in his mid-forties, his skin was very smooth, perhaps from having had the beard. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going to have another glass of wine and see if that will take the sting out.” the words could have played sarcastically, but his tone didn’t let them.
“But it wasn’t a lie—really. I had planned to stay in and work, but at the last minute, I ran out to grab a bite.”
“No need to explain.” Not quite as friendly this time. She wondered if he was one of those dark-eyed guys who sometimes got moody or sullen.
“By the way, I like your new look,” she told him, at a loss as to what else to say. But she meant it. She noticed for the first time— without the beard and mustache—that his nose had an appealing beak. More pirate than professor, she thought.
His smile returned. “Thanks. The beard was just an experiment, and it ran its course. Though I haven’t stopped jumping each time I look in the mirror.”
The bartender sauntered over to them. “Can I top off your wine for you?” he asked Duncan.
“That’d be great,” Duncan said.
“How ’bout you, ma’am? can I get you something?”
For a split second she thought Duncan would urge her to accept the offer, and to her surprise she realized she’d tell him yes. But Duncan said nothing, his silence nearly palpable. Of course, she realized. She’d made a bit of a fool of him, and he had no desire to have her stay now.
“Um, no, thank you,” Phoebe said. She turned back to Duncan. “Well, I’d better get back. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“You too,” he said.
What a dope I am, she thought as she made her way back up Bridge Street. I should have stayed in, eaten the damn salad. Well, at least this would discourage Duncan Shaw from asking her out again. He seemed nice but this wasn’t the time or place for her to become involved.
She cut back through the campus. As she hurried along the path, she wondered if there would still be a crowd near Curry Hall, holding vigil for the missing girl. But everyone had dispersed. As she reached the quad, however, she found a cluster of students gathered around a tree. She realized that they were tacking up a white flyer of some kind. Scanning the quad, she saw that all the other trees were already plastered with them. She cut across to one of the maples to read the flyer.
The headline read “Missing” above a photo of Lily Mack. She was pretty, with blond hair falling far below her shoulders and a small cleft in her chin. With a start Phoebe realized that she recognized the girl. She wasn’t in either of Phoebe’s classes, but Phoebe had walked with her in the rain recently, and shared an umbrella.
And the girl had told her a secret.
Excerpted from THE SIXES by Kate White. Copyright © 2011 by Kate White. Excerpted with permission by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive