Private School

Hannah Kline Mystery Series Book 3

“Mommy, they found a dead child in the bathroom.”

Dr. Hannah Kline has a busy obstetrical practice, an adorable six-year-old and a brand new live-in lover. The last thing she needs in her life is a murder at her daughter Zoe’s exclusive private school.

Detective Daniel Ross doesn’t make a habit of falling in love with women he meets during murder investigations, but he made an exception for Hannah and now he’s adjusting to their new living arrangement. He just wishes that she’d stop putting herself in danger by investigating his cases. When the dead child turns out to be in Hannah’s carpool, and the granddaughter of a good friend, Hannah can’t help getting involved. After all, she has the inside track at the Waverly School and Zoe’s safety is at stake.

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Private School
Chapter 1

Sometimes I fantasize that the whole awful series of events would never have taken place if I hadn’t been driving car pool that Tuesday morning. Of course I know that’s absurd. It’s only in science fiction novels that worlds of parallel probability exist, and a time traveler, inadvertently destroying a Paleolithic insect, changes the course of world history. The only thing that would have been different, had I not driven that morning, would have been my memories. I might not have remembered her quite so vividly, alive and giggling in the back seat of my car.

It was the week before Christmas vacation, and there I was, in the Toyota SUV I’d been forced to acquire, sharing chauffeur chores with two other families whose children also attended Los Angeles’ exclusive Waverly School. My name is Hannah Kline, and when I’m not driving carpool I have a large practice in obstetrics and gynecology. When I was young, and growing up in Brooklyn, none of the kids I knew ever went to private school and car pools were some mysterious rite people indulged in, in the suburbs. I guess that dates me.

I grew up in one of those liberal New York households where you were sent to wash your mouth out with soap if you mentioned the word Republican at the dinner table and where everyone always voted yes on school bond issues. Thus, I had seriously considered sending my six-year-old daughter Zoe to the Los Angeles public schools. This idealistic thought was short lived. Zoe, despite the fact that she is my daughter, is a shy, well-behaved, unassertive child, a testimonial I imagine to the fact that genetics don’t always determine personality. Or perhaps she inherited her serene disposition from her father, my late husband Ben. In any case, I decided pretty quickly that she’d get lost in a class of thirty-six children. Zoe needed something smaller and more nurturing.

This was easier said than accomplished since every Westside parent I knew was madly pulling strings to get their child into one of the few available private school slots. I still don’t quite know how Zoe managed to get admitted to Waverly. Perhaps she met their criteria for diversity by having the only widowed mother in her class. The fact that I was able to pay her tuition was due entirely to my wealthy father-in-law, Irving Kline, who, having lost two of his four children before their time, doted on his grandchild.

That morning, I’d gotten up at the crack of dawn as usual. I had a surgery to do so I saved myself the trouble of changing later and put on a pair of scrubs and one of my white coats. Then I tackled my hair. My hair is red, hangs half way down my back, and frizzes at the slightest provocation. The painful events of the past year-and-a-half had resulted in an unmistakable gray streak at my right temple, which I detested and promised myself to eliminate after the first of the year. I brushed it into submission, twisted it into a ladylike bun, put on some blush and a touch of green shadow to bring out the color of my eyes, and went downstairs to retrieve the Los Angeles Times and pop three bagels into the toaster oven. Then I yelled for Zoe to come to breakfast.

“Morning, Sweetheart.”

Daniel came up behind me, slipped his arms around my waist and fondled my breasts while kissing the back of my neck. I removed his hands to someplace more modest, just in case Zoe was actually on her way downstairs, and extracted some milk from the refrigerator.
“Not now, honey. I’ve got to leave for carpool in fifteen minutes.”

I thought I detected a transient hurt puppy-dog look in his eyes but he let me extricate myself, and I poured us both a mug of coffee.

Police detective Daniel Ross, my friend and lover, had moved in with Zoe and me three months earlier. I’m convinced that Zoe was actually responsible for this as she was continually pressuring me to let Daniel have sleepover dates at our house. He hadn’t quite gotten used to the household routine yet and was still behaving as if we were on our honeymoon. On second thought, I decided that wasn’t such a bad thing, so I gave him a hug.
“Hey, don’t leave me out,” said Zoe.

She was standing at the foot of the stairs wearing her Superman pajamas, brown eyes still half lidded with sleep.

“Family hug?” said Daniel, stretching out his arms for her.

She reached up and he lifted her into position between us from which she deposited a collection of little girl kisses on both our faces. Zoe is lucky that she’s so adorable. It frequently keeps me from losing my temper.

“We’re leaving for school in ten minutes,” I said. “I want to see you downstairs and dressed in five.” I looked at my watch and started counting seconds as she hit the stairs.
Daniel had never had a child of his own and Zoe had never known her real father. So far they seemed quite enchanted with one another. They played handball on the back patio, pool in the den and sword fights in my living room. The noise level was worse than a kindergarten classroom.

Zoe made it to the breakfast table and I handed them both bagels and cream cheese, and brushed her mass of dark waist length curls into a respectable French braid. Then I finished my coffee, threw Zoe’s lunch and homework into her backpack, and with a wave to Daniel hustled us both into my car.

We made our car-pool pick-up rounds and headed for the freeway. We shared carpool duty with two other families, my next-door neighbor Jane and the Honeywells, who cared for their two granddaughters. Jane’s daughter Jennifer was two years older than Zoe, a plump, cheerful child with glasses who talked nonstop. Lauren Medina, the Honeywell’s younger grandchild, was an angelic looking blonde, in Zoe’s class, who had become Zoe’s closest friend. Her ten-year-old sister Katy had the same delicate, elfin features as her sister but she was dark where Lauren was fair. She was painfully thin with brown eyes that seemed too large for her almost translucent face, eyes that were shadowed with dark circles.
The morning traffic, going north, was still light. In the back seat I could hear the four girls talking and laughing. The Waverly School was on Mulholland Drive, a location that made it accessible to both city and valley dwellers.

The stretch of Mulholland on either side of the San Diego Freeway was locally known as “Private School Row,” home to many of the fanciest elementary, middle and high schools in the city. The Waverly was at the top of a hill with views in both directions, accessed by a winding driveway with a guardhouse at the entrance to campus. The security guard glanced at the sticker on my windshield and waved me on. At the top of the drive a turnaround, shaded with large eucalyptus trees gave way to an expanse of green lawn and a quadrangle of 1920’s Spanish style buildings with red tile roofs and meandering terra cotta pathways. In the late summer, when I’d first seen the school, bougainvillea had run riot over the arches of the colonnades and the walkways had bloomed with zinnias. By December the riot of color had subsided but the skies were now clear enough to offer a spectacular view.

I pulled into the turnaround and unlocked the car doors for the girls. Zoe grabbed her backpack, blew me a kiss, and ran off to join a group of children who were playing on the front lawn.

All in all I’d been pleased with my decision to send her to Waverly. She was doing well academically and her close friendship with Lauren had been a bonus I hadn’t anticipated. I always worried that Zoe’s innate shyness might make it difficult for her to find friends. She had even told me that she adored her teachers, an emotion I’d never experienced about any of mine, except possibly Dr. Goldberg, my high school physics teacher who looked somewhat like Cary Grant with glasses.

I guided my car leisurely through the car pool lane, watching the kids play out of the corner of my eye and nodding cheerfully to the few other mothers I recognized. It was one of those glorious winter days in Los Angeles when Mulholland can offer views from downtown to Catalina Island, and as I swung my vehicle onto the approach to the freeway I lamented the fact that I had to waste most of it at work.

The month of December is one of the busiest times for a doctor. Anyone who ever contemplated an elective surgery, or an annual exam, wanted to come in before the year-end to avoid paying next year’s insurance deductible. My staff worked very hard, but their hearts just weren’t in it. Everyone was busy planning their winter vacations, checking off shopping lists and decorating their drab offices with holiday cards, poinsettias, menorahs and the occasional sprig of mistletoe.

My consult room needed more than mistletoe in the decorating department. About the only thing I love about it is the view, which extends northwest and can be spectacular on a day like today. Otherwise it is small, cramped and furnished with a mid-century vintage teak desk and two reupholstered old wing chairs. Interior design was never my forte. That’s why I married an architect. I’ve attempted to spruce it up over the years with an oriental rug, (one of Ben’s flea market finds), a few good lithographs, and plants, but I still find it depressing, especially on days when I’d much rather be somewhere else.

Monday was my surgery day. I had an ovarian cyst to remove at nine A.M., followed by a D&C and an elective caesarian section at noon. My partner Ruth had scheduled a hysterectomy to follow, at which I assisted, and an emergency tubal pregnancy topped off our afternoon. By the time I pulled into my garage I was exhausted.

Home is a two-story condominium town house in Brentwood, still sparsely furnished with the eclectic mix of pieces, lovingly selected by my husband Ben for the tiny craftsman’s bungalow we’d lived in, in Pasadena. It usually gives me a lovely feeling of tranquility to open the door and walk into my living room even when the tranquility is modified by the noise of a blasting T.V.

This time the television was on mute. Zoe was in the living room, curled up on the sofa, head resting on her knees, clearly ignoring the Disney channel. I put my briefcase on the hall table, walked over and kissed the top of her head. She glanced up at me, and lowered her eyes.

“Something bad happened in school today, Mommy.”

I’d wondered why she seemed so glum. Usually Zoe greets me at the door with a huge hug, a profusion of kisses, and a demand for attention. I cupped her chin in my hand, and tilted it so I could see her face.

“Want to talk about it, sweetheart?”

“You’re not going to like it,” she said.

“That’s okay, you can tell me anyway.”

She stared at me for a while without saying anything. Finally she took a deep breath.
“They found a dead girl in the bathroom,” she said.

Excerpt from Private School, by Paula Bernstein
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