"Mrs. Lawson," Sylvia Steiner, the principal of Willard School, said to Grace in that voice that principals use when dealing with hysterical parents, "Emma is fine. So is Max."
By the time Grace had made it to the door at King's, the man with the Batman lunchbox was gone. She started screaming, started asking for help, but her fellow shoppers looked at her as if she'd escaped from the county mental facility. There was no time to explain. She did her limp-run to her car, called the school while driving a speed that would have intimidated an Andretti, and burst straight into the main office.
"I spoke to both of their teachers. They're in class."
"I want to see them."
"Of course, that's your right, but may I make a suggestion?"
Sylvia Steiner spoke so damn slowly that Grace wanted to reach her hand down her throat and rip the words out.
"I'm sure you've had a terrible fright, but take a few deep breaths. Calm yourself first. You'll scare your children if they see you like this."
Part of Grace wanted to grab her patronizing, smug, over-coiffed 'do and pull it off her head. But another part of her, a bigger part, realized that the woman was speaking the truth.
"I just need to see them," Grace said.
"I understand. How about this? We can peek in on them from the window at the door. Would that work for you, Mrs. Lawson?"
"Come on then, I'll escort you." Principal Steiner shot the woman working the desk a look. The woman at the desk, Mrs. Dinsmont, did everything she could not to roll her eyes. Every school has a seen-it-all woman like this at the front desk. State law or something.
The corridors were explosions of color. The artwork of children always broke Grace's heart. The pieces were like snapshots, a moment that is forever gone, a life-post, never to be repeated. Their artistic abilities will mature and change. The innocence will be gone, captured only in fingerpaint or coloring out of the lines, in uneven handwriting.
They reached Max's classroom first. Grace put her face to the glass. She spotted her son immediately. Max's back was to her, his face tilted up. He sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor. His teacher, Miss Lyons, was in a chair. She was reading a picture book, holding it up so the children could see it, while she read.
"Okay?" Principal Steiner asked.
They continued down the corridor. Grace saw number 17...
Mrs. Lamb. Room 17...
... on the door. She felt a fresh shiver and tried not to hurry. Principal Steiner, she knew, had noticed the limp. The leg ached in a way it hadn't in years. She peered through the glass. Her daughter was there, right where she should be. Grace had to fight back the tears. Emma had her head down. The eraser end of her pencil was in her mouth. She chewed on it, deep in thought. Why, Grace wondered, do we find such poignancy in watching our children when they don't know we're there? What exactly are we trying to see?
So now what?
Deep breaths. Calm. Her children were okay. That was the key thing. Think it through. Be rational.
Call the police. That was the obvious move.
Principal Steiner faked a cough. Grace looked at her.
"I know this is going to sound nuts," Grace said, "but I need to see Emma's lunchbox."
Grace expected a look of surprise or exasperation, but no, Sylvia Steiner just nodded. She did not ask why - had in fact not questioned her bizarre behavior in any way. Grace was grateful.
"All the lunchboxes are kept in the cafeteria," she explained. "Each class has their own bucket. Would you like me to show you?"
The buckets were all lined up in grade order. They found the big blue bucket marked "Susan Lamb, Room 17" and started going through it.
"What does it look like?" Principal Steiner asked.
Just as she was about to reply Grace saw it. Batman. The word POW! in yellow caps. She slowly lifted it into view. Emma's name was written on the bottom.
"Is that it?"
"A popular one this year."
It took all her effort not to clutch the lunchbox to her chest. She put it back as though it were Venetian glass. They headed back to the main office in silence. Grace was tempted to pull the kids out of school. It was two-thirty. They'd be let out in a half an hour anyway. But no, that wouldn't work. That would probably just freak them out. She needed time to think, to consider her response, and when she thought about it, weren't Emma and Max safest right here, surrounded by others?
Grace thanked the principal again. They shook hands.
"Is there anything else I can do?" the principal asked.
"No, I don't think so."
Grace left then. She stood outside on the walk. She closed her eyes for a moment. The fear was not so much dissolving as solidifying, turning into pure, primitive rage. She could feel the heat running up her neck. That bastard. That bastard had threatened her daughter.
The police. She should call them. That was the obvious move. The phone was in her hand. She was about to dial when a simple thought stopped her: What exactly would she say?
Hi, I was in the supermarket today, see, and this man near the bologna section? Well, he whispered the name of my kid's teacher. Right, teacher. Oh, and her classroom number. Yes, at the bologna section, right there with the Oscar Mayer meats. And then the man ran off. But, I saw him later with my daughter's lunchbox. Outside the supermarket. What was he doing? Just walking, I guess. Well, no, it wasn't really Emma's lunchbox. It was the same kind. Batman. No, he didn't make any overt threats. Sorry? Yes, I'm the same woman who said her husband had been kidnapped yesterday. Right, then my husband called and said he needed space. Yep, that was me, the same hysterical broad...
Was there another option?
She ran it through again. The police already thought she was a whack job. Could she convince them otherwise? Perhaps. What would the cops do anyway? Would they assign a man full time to watch her children? Doubtful, even if she could somehow make them understand the urgency.
Then she remembered Scott Duncan.
He was with the U.S. attorney's office. That was like being a federal cop, right? He would have pull. He would have power. And most of all he would believe her.
Duncan had given her his cell number. She checked her pocket for it. Came up empty. Had she left it in the car? Probably. Didn't matter. He told her that he was heading back to work. The U.S. attorney's office was in Newark, she figured. Either that or Trenton. Trenton was too far a ride. Better to try Newark first. He should be there by now.
She stopped walking and turned to face the school. Her children were inside. Weird thought, but there it was. They spent their days here, away from her in this bastion of brick, and part of Grace found that oddly overwhelming. She dialed directory assistance and asked for the U.S. attorney's office in Newark. She spent the extra thirty-five cents to have the operator dial it for her.
" U.S. attorney for the state of New Jersey."
"Scott Duncan, please."
Two rings and a woman answered. "Goldberg," she said.
"I'm looking for Scott Duncan."
"What case is this in reference to?"
"No case. I just need to speak with Mr. Duncan."
"May I ask what it's about?"
"It's a personal matter."
"Sorry, I can't help you. Scott Duncan doesn't work here anymore. I'm covering most of his cases. If I can help you with that..."
Grace pulled the phone away from her ear. She looked at it as though from afar. She clicked the end button. She got into her car and again watched the brick building that currently housed her children. She watched it for a very long time, wondering if there was anyone she could truly trust, before deciding what to do.
She lifted the phone back into view. She pressed in the number.
"This is Grace Lawson."
Three seconds later, Carl Vespa said, "Is everything okay?"
"I changed my mind," Grace said. "I do need your help."