The second book in the Black Sun's Daughter series, 2009
To Anita Blake and Harry Angel
"How long has this been going on?"
The teacher sat on the corner of his desk, a pile of ungraded math worksheets shifting under his thigh, and thought about how best to answer. The woman stood, waiting. She was younger than he was by almost a decade. Pale hair, ice-blue eyes, cream linen suit, shoulder holster. She wasn't how he'd pictured an FBI agent. She was almost small enough to sit at one of the kids' desks, but it took a while to notice that. She seemed bigger.
How long had this been going on?
"Maybe six months, more or less," he said, "but it's not the kind of thing you can be sure. I mean, Daria's always been smart, and this isn't a school system that's been much good with smart kids. Especially smart black kids. She's always had a struggle to find her place here."
The woman smiled and nodded, the implicit message being that she understood. He was free to speak, even about issues of race. The teacher relaxed a little.
"What about the hurricane?" she asked. "She was here when Katrina hit, wasn't she?"
"Yeah, well. There is that," he said. "Her family tried to ride it out. She made it to the Superdome, with her grandmother and her sister. Her brother and mom... they didn't make it. I don't know. Maybe it started back then. But the past few months, it's gotten worse. She's late for class half the time, and missing maybe a day every week. Her work's perfect when she does it. I've got the grade book right here. Hundreds and zeros. Nothing but."
The woman stepped forward, looking at the book in his proffered hand. The classroom windows were dirty, the dust and grit softening the late afternoon light. The woman didn't step back, and he found himself uncomfortably aware of her body close to his.
"And the stories?" she asked.
"About six months, like I said. I know all the teachers here. I've talked to them. She never used to lie. Or, you know what I mean. No more than any kid does. Not like this."
"I understand," the woman said, leaning past him to put the grade book back on his desk. Her jacket brushed against his shirt with the soft hushing sound of fabric on fabric. He cleared his throat. The woman strode over to the windows as if lost in thought. He couldn't tell if she was coming on to him or simply didn't recognize the effect she was having.
"Mind if I ask why her?" he said.
The woman turned back, a question in her eyes.
"Daria," he said. "She's a good kid. I like her. But... Well, I can say this because I work here. There's a reason we've got so many private schools in New Orleans. The kids I see in here, a lot of them don't always have enough food all the time. Or good clothes. They've got daddies in jail or on the street or missing. This is fourth grade, and some of them are already on drugs. I had a nine-year-old girl last year got pulled out because she was messing around with the boys on school property."
"And you think because Daria's not fucking the other students, she doesn't matter?" the woman said. Her voice didn't give away anything. She might have been amused or offended or curious to see how he reacted to her clear, clean enunciation of the word fuck. He felt a twitch of anger, and crossed his arms.
"I'm saying we've got a lot of kids in trouble," he said.
"Not like her, you don't," the woman said.
The slap of small shoes on the tile interrupted them. After classes got out, there were hardly any kids still in the school building. The sound of one child running echoed down the hall, coming closer. The teacher rose. The woman shifted her attention to the doorway, and Daria Glapion skidded through it.
The girl's breath was rushed, her face flushed. The long, tight braids of her hair glowed. She wore a green skirt and a white blouse that looked more like an adult's clothes cut small than something a child would wear. If there was fear in the girl's expression, it was no more than what the teacher expected from a child who'd come late to her appointment. He smiled.
"Daria?" he said. "This is Karen Black. She's the woman who wanted to talk with you."
The FBI agent came forward. Daria swallowed once, then nodded to her and smiled theatrically.
"I do hope you'll forgive my being tardy," Daria said, with an affected formality. Her voice was so adult, she almost sounded British. "I meant to be here before, but my sister was eaten by a snake."
He shot a glance at the woman. That's the kind of thing we hear all the time. But the FBI agent was fixed on Daria, the pale eyes suddenly soft and friendly, the smile warm and gentle. She knelt a little to put herself at Daria's height. Daria's smile and posture kept their formality, but he saw the girl's eyes flicker.
"Can I ask you a question, Daria?" the woman said.
"But of course."
"The snake. The one that ate your sister? What color was it?"
The shock on Daria's face was startling. The false air of sophistication vanished; her eyes went round and her skin ashen. The teacher stepped forward with the sense that something dangerous had happened, but didn't know who he should protect or from what. The FBI agent's expression was soft and reassuring and maternal. Her pale eyes had the hint of a smile at the corners.
"It's okay," the woman said. "You're okay. You can tell me."
"It was shiny," Daria said. She sounded terribly young.
The woman nodded, as if the two of them had said aloud something they both already knew. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, the sound of it loud enough to carry. It was a trick, breathing like that, he thought. She's trying to keep the girl from panicking.
"Okay," the woman said. "I need to ask you something else, honey. And it's very very important that you tell me the truth, all right? It's okay. No one's going to hurt you. It's okay to tell me the truth. You understand?"
There was a pause. He could see Daria's pulse racing in the hollow of her neck. She nodded.
"Do you believe me?" the woman asked gently.
Daria nodded again. The woman reached out and took the girl's small, dark hand in both of her pale ones. Daria's breath was fast, her face bloodless. He almost spoke to break the unbearable tension in the air, but something held him back.
"These things that you're telling me," the woman said. "Have they happened yet?"
The teacher leaned forward.
"No," Daria whispered.
The woman rose to her feet, her expression closed and tight. Where a moment before she had been soft and gentle and welcoming, now she was solid and businesslike. Daria took a step backward, biting her lip as if she could take the word back.
"I have to go," the woman said.
"What-" the teacher began.
"I have to go right now."