Pithed [An Andy Farmer Mystery]
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by Kathryn Lively
Description: Pith, a transitive verb meaning "to destroy the spinal cord or central nervous system of (as a frog) usually by passing a wire or needle up and down the vertebral canal" (Source: Merriam-Webster) He pissed me off, Andy ... he pissed me off for the last time, so I pithed him. Biology teacher Andy Farmer desperately wished his friend Chuck Cleveland was lisping over the phone on that fateful morning, but when he arrived at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings High to find the building wrapped in crime scene tape, he feared the worst. With Chuck missing and the principal dead--stabbed with a scalpel meant for rendering biology lab frogs brain dead--Andy now agonizes over possible accessory charges as he plays coy with Detective Robert French, all the while encouraging Chuck to own up for what he has done ... when he is able to talk to his elusive friend. Andy feels a sense of urgency, too, when French's investigation reveals Andy himself is a more likely suspect than Chuck in Principal Horace Shelton's murder! Though Andy's alibi is tight and he is innocent, a tense history with Shelton leads the police to think otherwise. It is enough Andy has to deal with his bum hip, fading hearing, and threats to force him into retirement from his superiors, he doesn't want to worry about it in prison. Besides, who would feed and walk the dog that Andy's son brought home from Tallahassee? This is Pithed, the first installment of the Andy Farmer Mystery Series, set in Jacksonville, Florida. Pithed is based upon an idea by Kathryn's father, a science and math teacher of 30+ years, with characters and settings inspired by Kathryn's own high school years. Everybody knows high school was murder, Andy Farmer would agree, and his story--a tale of revenge, public school bureaucracy, and a dog named Steely Dan--will make the reader anything but "pithed."
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2004 2004
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [210 KB]
Reading time: 132-184 min.
"In Pithed, Kathryn Lively keeps us guessing as story events unfold in entertaining twists and turns told in prose sparkling with wit and unsentimental charm."--Bob Stanton, author of Views from a Window, Conversations with Gore Vidal and co-author of The Devil's Rood.
"Pithed establishes Kathryn Lively as one of the most talented and insightful mystery writers of our day. I couldn't stop reading! Andy Farmer is a tour-de-force of the common man."--William Ferguson, author of Jonah Christopher and the Last Chance Mass
"Sparkling prose, clever dialogue, and a main character who just about steps out of the book to shake your hand. And a nice murder mystery to boot. One surprise after another. Pithed keeps you reading."--Colleen Drippe, author of Godcountry
Andy Farmer is an unlikely sleuth, and Kathryn Lively keeps both Andy and the reader off balance to the very end. [Pithed is] a fun read."--Randall England, author of The Last Fisherman
The voice on the other end was deep and terse.
"I did it, Andy."
"Wha?" I yawned into the phone. My eyes were slit open just enough to see the alarm clock on my side of the bed announce in bright red that it was 4:12 in the morning--a good eighteen minutes before I normally wakened on a school day. Despite the momentary bout of disorientation, I immediately recognized my fellow teacher Chuck Cleveland as the caller. Chuck was the only other person I knew, besides me, who would be alert so early.
Of course, I was not completely alert yet. I thought I still had eighteen minutes of sleep left.
"Andy? You there?"
"Yeah." An elbow jabbed me in the ribs. My wife Louise shifted restlessly on her side of the mattress, sliding yet another inch of bed sheet around her body and leaving my feet exposed. Lou is also a teacher, but hardly an early riser. She relishes every bit of sleep she is allowed; any noise on my part is regarded as spite.
I bent toward my night table, as far out of her earshot as I could go without getting out of bed. "Chuck, I don't know what you did," I hissed into the phone, "but can't it wait until we get to work and you can explain it to me then?"
"I'm not coming to work." Chuck sounded like he had been crying. I had half a mind to ask, but stayed quiet. The less words coming from my end, the better for my rib cage. Instead I listened as a roaring exhale rippled through the receiver.
"He pissed me off, Andy," Chuck said finally. "He pissed me off for the last time, so I pithed him."
"What? Are you lisping?" I whispered hoarsely. Another jab, this time to the hip, the one I had replaced. Pain shot all the way to my toes. I rolled out of bed and carried the phone into the bathroom, shutting the door on the cord that dragged behind me. "Say that again?"
A heavy sigh ruptured on the other end. Figuring I was about to be treated to a lengthy explanation of a bar fight gone bad, I took a seat on the john and set the phone on my lap. The yellow glow of an outside lamppost provided the only light in the cramped area, and through the frosted glass of the bathroom window it sparkled and appeared to spread with every movement of my eyes.
"Chuck?" I whispered cautiously. "Are you in jail? Is that why you're calling?" Chuck, while an effective and dedicated biology teacher, could be moody at times. His darker moods tended to give way to minor altercations, which had increased in number when his wife died two years ago. "Do I need to come bail you out for something?"
"I'm not going to jail," he said quickly. I sensed the mood shift from scared to angry. In the stifling dark of the bathroom I felt my heart leap simultaneously with the sound of Lou shifting in our bed. Could she hear Chuck blaring from the receiver? He certainly sounded loud. Of course, I was listening with my good ear and everything sounded amplified.
"You hear me, Andy? I'm not going to jail for this. That bastard's not worth the time."
"Okay." That helped little. So far all I had was that somebody had pissed off my colleague, who sought revenge by pissing him off in return. The pisser--is that the proper term?--now the pissed, was a bastard not worth a jail sentence. I'm not all too familiar with Chuck's private life, so I could only pinpoint the possible work-related bastards. Given that we are talking about the public school system, I knew it was not a short list.
"Chuck, tell you what," I began again, hoping he was not drunk. Since his wife Enid's death he had been known to tip the bottle. "Why don't you let me get dressed and I'll meet you at the Dunkin' Donuts by the school? They're open early, so we can have some coffee and talk before the first bell--"
"Andy, I'm not coming to work," Chuck seethed. I pictured him stalking the confines of his minuscule one-bedroom apartment as he talked, swatting knickknacks and tipping over end tables in his wake, he sounded that angry.
"Why? Are you sick? Are you in trouble? Guy, you're going to have get specific if you want my help!"
"You'll know soon enough when you get to school." A long pause followed. I'm ashamed to admit I was actually listening for a suicidal gunshot; my thumb brushed the plunger, just in case I needed to call 911. Relief washed over me when he spoke again without being prompted.
"Look," he said. "Just know that what I did was in the heat of the moment. He just pushed me over the edge, you know? It's enough that my wife dies and I got bills coming out my ass ... oh, man.
"I--I shouldn't have called," he added. "They'll probably check up on the phone, and I'll just be giving you and Lou more trouble than you need. Look, whatever happens, if anyone asks, just say you don't know where I am, okay?"
Technically, it was true. How could I really be sure Chuck was at home? Given this current mindset, he could be calling from a seedy motel off I-95 in Brunswick.
"Chuck," I pressed. "What did you do? And why would you think you'd be giving me any trouble? Who is this guy who pissed you off?"
My answer was the sound of Chuck disconnecting from his end. I was left sitting in the dark on my toilet, wondering who they were and why they would be so interested in tracing Chuck's phone to track this early morning conversation which made absolutely no sense. * * * *
To avoid incurring any further wrath from Lou, I sidled over to my closet and changed into jogging shorts and a T-shirt. I don't cover as much ground in my morning jog as I did before my hip replacement surgery nine years ago, but I refuse to let such a simple thing as age get in the way of my routine. If anything, the exercise serves to keep me somewhat toned and flexible, and if not for the snow on the roof I would dare to admit that I might look younger than my fifty-six years. Sure, I have the option of hair rinse, but seeing as how I discourage cheating in the classroom I like to set the same example for life in general. Hollywood isn't beckoning, either.
Throughout my half-mile course around the neighborhood I clutched my hand weights, my mind focused entirely on Chuck and our conversation--if it could be called that. I chugged along the side of my street in the balmy June weather, mentally deciphering Chuck's every word. He pissed me off, so I pithed him...
Surely he meant to say pissed the second time as well; perhaps that slur had led me to believe Chuck was recovering from a binge. Question was, who had made Chuck angry, and to what extent? Whatever Chuck had done sounded bad, especially with the fear of jail so prevalent in his voice.
I returned home and tapered off my workout on the back patio with some push-ups and a set of arm curls. A perfect image of Chuck festered in my mind. Now there was a face that belied its true age--he was six years my junior and at least 6 feet, 1 inch with large, brown hands that could easily palm a bowling ball. Not a speck of gray colored the tight curls crowning his head. Name any famous black actor today, and he would want to look as good as Chuck when he turned fifty.
Good looks aside, Chuck's temper had a short fuse as of late. I had seen him explode more than once in an unruly classroom, once going so far as to pick up an empty metal desk and threaten to bash it over a student's skull. He might have, too, had I not intervened and spent the next fifteen minutes trying to calm down a room full of petrified teenagers. Whether it's lack of years in the system--Chuck came to my school through a local second-career-as-a-teacher program--or his years in the military that fostered this temper I can not be certain, but I doubt Chuck Cleveland could be capable of something heinous.
I let the five-pound weight fall to the concrete floor of the back patio, where I kept my exercise equipment. Whatever he had done, he thought it was bad enough to warrant missing work, something Chuck never did. All teachers should display such devoted attendance.
As I spied the glowing clock on the back patio wall I suddenly realized if I didn't shower soon my own perfect work attendance would be tainted with a tardy notice. * * * *
I teach honors and advanced placement biology at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings High School, which is located in the Westside area of Jacksonville, Florida. When I started there twenty-five years ago, the school was named for a Civil War general who, as years of local historical research revealed, was instrumental in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. A petition drive held nearly a decade ago prompted the name change, and Rawlings received the posthumous honor. Bart Simpson finished a close second.
If only the school board was as passionate about refurbishing the building as they were of the name plastered above the front doors. I steered my car through the rusted, open gate leading to the back parking lot, reserved for faculty. The chain link fence bordering the lot and playing fields drooped in places, with some metal posts leaning forward. One could easily see where students had negotiated the fence to slip away for lunch at one of the neighboring fast food restaurants off the main road. I watched as a pair of young girls dressed in low-rise jeans and frilly-sleeved white blouses--both dangerously close to breaking the dress code--slugged through the overgrowth, each carrying a Dunkin' Donuts sack. Lunch. Considering the options the cafeteria offered this week, I didn't blame either of them for turning their noses at our food pyramid.
Further thoughts of Chuck, doughnuts, and dilapidated school property quickly faded into the buzzing, humid air when I noticed the burly officer blocking the back entrance to the building. Security at public schools was not news, but this man wasn't dressed as a rent-a-cop. The gun holster strapped to his waist was one clue, and as I parked close to the curb of the main building I could see my car reflected in his mirrored shades. The expression on his face was purposeful. Most security officers assigned to Rawlings tend to look bored with their random backpack searches, and most had attended grammar school with George Burns back in the day.
"Can I help you, sir?" was his gruff greeting to me as I approached the back door--my usual entrance--which he blocked with his thick frame.
"I teach here," I said. "Andy Farmer. Biology. My lab's in the back of the building."
An offer to show ID got me nowhere. The officer grimly shook his head and gestured around the corner, toward the front of the school. "Everybody goes in through the front today," he said, "but I'm not sure they'll let you in at all."
But the officer would say nothing more.
Then Chuck's desperate words from earlier rang in my ears.
You'll know soon enough when you get to school.
Right now, though, I didn't know anything, and I wasn't sure I wanted to know anything.