This is the first of three excerpts from Lisa Scottoline's new novel, "One Perfect Lie," which comes out Tuesday.
Chapter OneChris Brennan was applying for a teaching job at Central Valley High School, but he was a fraud. His resumé was fake, and his identity completely phony. So far he'd fooled the personnel director, the assistant principal, and the chairperson of the Social Studies Department. This morning was his final interview, with the principal, Dr. Wendy McElroy. It was make-or-break.
Chris waited in her office, shifting in his chair, though he wasn't nervous. He'd already passed the state and federal criminal-background checks and filed a clear Sexual Misconduct/Abuse Disclosure Form, Child Abuse Clearance Form, and Arrest/Conviction Report & Certification Form. He knew what he was doing. He was perfect, on paper.
He'd scoped out the school and observed the male teachers, so he knew what to wear for the interview - a white oxford shirt, no tie, khaki Dockers, and Bass loafers bought from the outlets in town. He was six- foot-two, 216 pounds, and his wide-set blue eyes, broad cheekbones, and friendly smile qualified him as handsome in a suburban way. His hair was sandy brown, and he'd just gotten it cut at the local Supercuts. Everyone liked a clean-cut guy, and they tended to forget that appearances were deceiving.
His gaze took in Dr. McElroy's office. Sunlight spilled from a panel of windows behind the desk, which was shaped like an L of dark wood, its return stacked with forms, files, and binders labeled Keystone Exams, Lit & Alg 1. Stuffed bookshelves and black file cabinets lined the near wall, and on the far one hung framed diplomas from Penn State and West Chester University, a greaseboard calendar, and a poster that read DREAM MORE, COMPLAIN LESS. The desk held family photographs, pump bottles of Jergen's and Purell, and unopened correspondence next to a letter opener.
Chris's gaze lingered on the letter opener, its pointed blade gleaming in the sunlight. Out of nowhere, he flashed to a memory. No! the man had cried, his last word. Chris had stabbed the man in the throat, then yanked out the knife. Instantly a fan of blood had sprayed onto Chris, from residual pressure in the carotid. The knife must have served as a tamponade until he'd pulled it out, breaking the seal. It had been a rookie mistake, but he was young back then.
"Sorry I'm late," said a voice at the doorway, and Chris rose as Dr. McElroy entered the office on a knee scooter, which held up one of her legs bent at the knee, with a black orthopedic boot on her right foot.
"Hello, Dr. McElroy, I'm Chris Brennan. Need a hand?" Chris rose to help her but she scooted forward, waving him off. She looked like what he'd expected: a middle- aged professional with hooded blue eyes behind wire- rimmed bifocals and with a lean face framed by clipped gray hair and dangling silver earrings. She even had on a dress with a gray-and-pink print. Chris got why women with gray hair dressed in gray things. It looked good.
"Call me Wendy. I know this looks ridiculous. I had bunion surgery, and this is the way I have to get around."
"Does it hurt?"
"Only my dignity. Please sit down." Dr. McElroy rolled the scooter toward her desk with difficulty. The basket in front of the scooter held a tote bag stuffed with a laptop, files, and a quilted floral purse.
Chris sat back down, watching her struggle. He sensed she was proving a point, that she didn't need help, when she clearly did. People were funny. He had researched Dr. McElroy on social media and her faculty webpage, which had a bio and some photos. She'd taught Algebra for twelve years at CVHS and lived in nearby Vandenberg with her husband, David, and their Pembroke Welsh corgi, Bobo. Dr. McElroy's photo on her teacher webpage was from her younger days, like a permanent Throwback Thursday. Bobo's photo was current.
"Now you know why I'm late. It takes forever to get anywhere. I was home recuperating during your other interviews, that's why we're doing this now. Apologies about the inconvenience." Dr. McElroy parked the scooter next to her chair, picked up her purse and tote bag from the basket, and set them noisily on her desk.
"That's okay, it's not a problem."
Dr. McElroy left the scooter, hopped to her chair on one foot, then flopped into the seat. "Well done, me!"
"Agree," Chris said pleasantly.
"Bear with me another moment, please." Dr. McElroy pulled a smartphone from her purse and put it on her desk, then reached inside her tote bag and slid out a manila folder. She looked up at him with a flustered smile. "So. Chris. Welcome back to Central Valley. I hear you wowed them at your interviews. You have fans here, already."
"Great, it's mutual." Chris flashed a grin. The other teachers liked him, though everything they knew about him was a lie. They didn't even know his real name, which was Curt Abbott. In a week, when it was all over and he was gone, they'd wonder how he'd duped them. There would be shock and resentment. Some would want closure, others would want blood.
"Chris, let's not be formal, let's just talk, since you've done so well at your previous interviews, and, as you know, we have to get this position filled ASAP. Mary Merriman is the teacher you'd be replacing, and, of course, we all understood her need to take care of her ailing father." Dr. McElroy sighed. "She's already up in Maine, but reachable by email or phone. She would be happy to help you in any way she can."
Whatever, Chris thought but didn't say. "That's great to know. How nice of her."
"Oh, she's a peach, Mary is. Even at her darkest hour, she's thinking of her students." Dr. McElroy brightened. "If I expedite your paperwork, I can get you in class this Thursday, when the sub leaves. Can you start that soon?"
"Yes, the sooner the better," Chris said, meaning it. He had a lot to do by next Tuesday, which was only a week away, and he couldn't start until he was in place at the school. It gave new meaning to the word deadline.
"I must warn you, you have big shoes to fill, in Mary. She's one of our most beloved teachers."
"I'm sure, but I'm up to the task." Chris tried to sound gung ho.
"Still it won't be easy for you, with the spring semester already well under way."
"Again, I can handle it. I spoke with the others about it and I'm up to speed on her syllabus and lesson plans."
"Okay, then." Dr. McElroy opened the manila folder, which contained a printout of Chris' job application, his fake resumé, and his other bogus papers. "Chris, for starters, tell me about yourself. Where are you from?"
"Mostly the Midwest, Indiana, but we moved around a lot. My dad was a sales rep for a plumbing-supply company, and his territory kept changing." Chris lied, excellently. In truth, he didn't remember his father or mother. He had grown up in the foster-care system outside Dayton, Ohio.
Dr. McElroy glanced at the fake resumé. "I see you went to Northwest College in Wyoming."
"Got your certification there, too?"
"Hmmm." Dr. McElroy paused. "Most of us went to local Pennsylvania schools. West Chester, Widener, Penn State."
"I understand." Chris had expected as much, which was why he'd picked Northwest College as his fraudulent alma mater. The odds of running into anyone here who had gone to college in Cody, Wyoming, were slim to none.
Dr. McElroy hesitated. "So, do you think you could fit in here?"
"Yes, of course. I fit in anywhere." Chris kept the irony from his tone. He'd already established his false identity with his neighbors, the local Dunkin' Donuts, Friendly's, and Wegmans, his persona as smoothly manufactured as the corporate brands with their bright logos, plastic key tags, and rewards programs.
"Where are you living?"
"I'm renting in a new development nearby. Valley Oaks, do you know it?"
"Yes, it's a nice one," Dr. McElroy answered, as he'd anticipated. Chris had picked Valley Oaks because it was close to the school, though there weren't many other decent choices. Central Valley was a small town in south-central Pennsylvania, known primarily for its outlet shopping. The factory store of every American manufacturer filled strip mall after strip mall, and the bargain-priced sprawl was bisected by the main drag, Central Valley Road. Also on Central Valley Road was Central Valley Dry Cleaners, Central Valley Lockshop, and Central Valley High School, evidence that the town had no imagination, which Chris took as a good sign. Because nobody here could ever imagine what he was up to.
Coming Tuesday in Magazine: Chapter One, continued.
LISA SCOTTOLINE'S AREA APPEARANCES
Noon: Center City
Barnes & Noble, 1805 Walnut St.
7 p.m.: Devon
Barnes & Noble,
150 W. Swedesford Rd.
7 p.m.: Moorestown
Barnes & Noble, 1311 Nixon Dr.
7 p.m.: Willow Grove
Barnes & Noble, 102 Park Ave.
Noon: King of Prussia
Costco, 201 Allendale Rd.