Friday morning, when Mark arrived at work, there was a note waiting for him. Principal Ward wanted to meet with him during his conference hour. Curiosity gnawed at him all day, and he showed up promptly on time.
When he entered the office, Ward looked up with a strange smile. "Sit down, Mark."
Taking a chair, Mark asked, "You needed to see me?"
Ward got up, closed the door, then unplugged his intercom. Then he returned to his seat and leaned back in his chair, staring at him in silence for a minute or so. Just when Mark was starting to tense up, the principal shook his head. "I've got to admit, you had me totally fooled."
Mark looked at him confused. "I'm sorry?"
Ward laughed. "So innocent. Such a fine, upstanding, moral young man."
Mark is maintained his puzzled expression.
"Oh please. I'm impressed. What you've done is, frankly, amazing. Right under her father's nose, even."
Mark looked at him, maintaining his expression of bemused innocence. "Dr. Ward... could you please tell me what you are talking about?"
Ward reached into a drawer and pulled out a plain, brown envelope. He handed it to Mark and Mark opened it. Inside were pictures of him and Kristen, in her bedroom at Steven's house.
He stared at them for a moment, too surprised to really react, and wondered how they'd been taken. There were no windows in Kristen's room. At least she wasn't glowing. The pictures appeared to have come from directly above the bed.
He studied the pictures closely, buying time. "Dr. Ward, I have to admit, these are some of the best fakes I've ever seen. What I don't understand is... why?"
Ward ignored his comment. "I can't imagine how you managed it, but I must congratulate you. You've even got her to stop sleeping around, somehow. I'd love to know how you did that, I would've sworn that the little slut would never have been able to keep her legs together for a whole day, much less a matter of weeks."
Mark held his silence. It was hard, though. The way the man was talking about Kristen... but he knew that he had to remain calm to get out of this. He kept trying to find some angle, some way out, but the pictures were obviously from film and not a web cam or anything easily altered.
Ward mistook his silence. "Don't worry, I have no intention of giving your secret away."
"I said I was impressed. Note I didn't say 'outraged'. You did have me quite, quite fooled, though."
Mark stared down at the pictures. "I would like to know how you got these."
"Now that, I can't tell you," he said with a smile. "You can keep that set, if you'd like. Quite nice, aren't they?"
Mark frowned. "What's this about, then?"
"Curiosity, mostly," Ward said. "How did you get her to stop screwing them all?"
Mark looked at him, steadily. "I told her that she should decide who she wanted to have sex with."
The principal snorted. "Of course you did. And that just made her all of a sudden stop wanting to have sex with anyone but you?"
"That's what I did." Mark shrugged. "I suspect that perhaps having someone to care about her made the difference."
"How so that's it. She thinks you care about her. Of course."
Mark shook his head. "Not thinks, Dr. Ward."
Ward smirked. "Of course."
"I do care about her Dr. Ward. She's... well, frankly, she's amazing."
Ward looked down at the pictures admiringly, making Mark want to hit him. "She certainly is. Amazing stamina, it seems. And so flexible. Tell me, Mark... if I were to help you a bit, cover for you with her father, do you think you could persuade your little pet to be properly... appreciative?"
That was it. Absolutely enough. More than enough, in fact. Mark pulled out his cell phone, hitting the speed dial number for Steven as Dr. Ward watched, confused.
Steven answered before the second ring. "What's wrong, Mark?"
"How fast can you get down here to the school? Ward has pictures of me and Kristen, and just offered to make sure you didn't find out about them if I persuaded her to have sex with him. By the way, you want to have your house checked for bugs. The pictures were taken from directly above her bed."
Mark kept his eyes on Ward's face as he was talking. So he had the pleasure of watching him go dead pale right before he burst out, "Son-of-a-fucking bitch! He lied to me."
"I'll be there in about 10 minutes," Steven said, then hung up.
Mark folded the phone. "Lied to you?"
Ward sneered at him, ignoring the question. "So what did you do to persuade him to share his candy, Hasseran? Jesus... I bought the whole outraged father act, too. You two have quite a nice arrangement, don't you?"
Mark sighed and shook his head. "You know, David, I can't believe how wrong you've gotten things. Quite frankly, you're lucky he didn't hang you out to dry. I would have. I still might." The anger in his voice was unmistakable.
"There were more pictures," David said hoarsely. "And negatives. I tried to be nice, but if you don't want it that way... fine."
Mark shrugged, asking with a little smile, "And?"
"And now that I know you're fucking her with his cooperation, the both of you could rot in jail."
The smile didn't waver. "We'll see."
Just to have some interesting conversation while waiting for Steven, Mark smiled and asked, "You do realize that you're guilty of producing and distributing child pornography?"
Ward laughed, staring at him incredulously. "You think you're going to threaten me? No, I don't think so. Not this time. I was a concerned school official trying to save one of my students from parental abuse. I was shocked to discover one of my own teachers participating in that abuse. I might have stepped over the line in confronting the bastard myself, but if I eventually went to the police, that would probably be forgiven." He met Mark's eyes with a greasy expression of satisfaction. "If you force me to go to the police, that is."
Mark made a 'tsk-tsk' sound, shaking his head. "Let's see what Steven has to say when he gets here," he said, thinking that Steven had best have good reasons if he didn't want to send Ward down the river. He fully intended to put him away and then mail all the inmates full information about what he was in for.
Fortunately, it wasn't long before Steven opened the office door and came in, carrying his briefcase. He closed the door behind him.
Mark looked up at him. "How do we want to handle this?"
Steven looked at him, his face giving away nothing. "How would you like to handle it, son?"
"Well, personally, I'd like to put him away and make sure everyone knows he's in for child porn. But I'm not the lawyer here."
Steven smiled tightly. "Where did you get the pictures, Ward?" he asked coldly.
The man sneered. "I don't see why I should tell you that." His cheek twitched. "Who the fuck do you think you are, anyway? You're the ones were screwing a 14 year old."
Mark looked at Steven, blinking mildly. "For some reason, he seems to think I'm guilty of statutory rape."
"Amazing. I can't imagine why he'd think that," Steven said. "He always was rather stupid, though."
Ward slammed his fist down on the desk. "I have pictures, damn it! You're not going to lie your way out of this!"
"Who's talking about lying?" Mark asked, looking surprised. "I'm not guilty."
"Oh, I suppose that's not you in the pictures? A twin brother perhaps?"
Mark glanced over at the pictures and smiled. "Nope, that's me."
Steven leaned over to look. "Yup. Good likeness, too. And that's Kristen, I recognize the birthmark on her lower back. Her mother had one just like it."
Ward tried desperately to regain some of his bravado. "As if you've never seen it before."
Steven looked over at Mark, feigning shock. "Mark, he appears to think I'm sleeping with Kristen."
"I know," Mark said. "That's slander, isn't it?"
"Indeed, it is. Of course, you know I'm not, right? I'd hate to have you think I was doing such a thing."
Mark nodded. "I know you aren't. But it's terrible, terrible, having my boss accuse you of such a thing in front of me."
Steven nodded solemnly. "And of course, he's accusing her, as well. How do you feel about that, son?"
Mark shot Ward a murderous glare. "It rather pisses me off." He looked back at Steven. "He still hasn't got it. Should we tell him?"
"Be my guest, Mark."
Mark smiled at Ward as Steven opened his briefcase and began sorting through the papers there. It wasn't a nice smile. "Do you have any idea just how much it pisses me off to hear you accuse my wife of incest?" he asked calmly, and Ward went deathly pale.
"Your... wife? You've married the little whore?!"
The smile disappeared from Mark's face and he stalked over leaning on Ward's desk, his face inches away from the principal. "You'd better be very glad that I don't want anything to mess up your trial, or I'd beat the shit out of you right here for talking about my wife that way. Don't ever do it again, do you understand me?"
Ward stared at him incredulously. "You're fucking serious. You really did marry her. Why, for godsake?!"
Mark straightened up, looking down at the man pityingly. "Because I love her, you idiot."
David looked confused. "How could you? She's been screwing the entire school since she was 11. How could you possibly loveher?" He seemed to be in total shock, his mouth operating independently of what little brain he had.
Mark shook his head. "I can't explain that in any way you'd understand, because you'd have to understand love first." He looked at Steven to see how he was doing.
Steven tapped a sheaf of papers on his briefcase and handed them to Ward. "You'll find all the legalities observed and paperwork in order. He did marry her. Quite properly and legally with parental permission. Now, let us discuss your slander, attempted blackmail, breaking and entering, child pornography, and attempt to solicit sex with a minor."
David licked his lips. "I can still take you down with me. Maybe not you, Davis, but him, I can."
Mark held his tight smile. "Don't forget to add conspiracy to those charges Steven -- he got the pictures from someone else."
"I can get more," Ward said, sounding desperate. "And I can prove that they were taken before the date on this marriage certificate."
"As he did marry her... as soon as possible, too... I doubt that a court would be troubled by a couple of weeks' difference. Especially with people willing to testify as to the extreme difference in her personality after Mark entered her life. Suddenly becoming happy, raising her grades significantly, and embracing chastity instead of promiscuity would seem to indicate a positive influence, not a negative."
"Fine," David said. "He might can avoid jail, but he'll never work as a teacher again, I can see to that." He looked rather offended when Mark just laughed.
Mark shook his head. "David, you saw my résumé. Tell me again, how many doctorates do I have? And what are they in? I'm not working as a teacher because I have to, I'm doing it because I want to. And Kristen is well worth giving that up, believe me."
"But you do want to," Ward insisted. "Everyone can see that it's greatly important to you. And how would your little trick feel to know she's the reason you can do it any more? Wouldn't be so happy, then, would she?"
Still, shaking his head, Mark looked at Steven. "He doesn't get it, does he? He seems to think he can blackmail me, for some reason." He looked back toward. "Tell me, how do you think the parents of the girls here in school are going to react when they find out about this? When they find out you've planted hidden cameras in at least one teenage girl's house?" His face hardened. "No, she won't like it, Ward. It'll make her unhappy. But she'll get over it. You won't."
"I didn't plant the cameras. An anonymous source mailed me the pictures out of concern for Kristen's well-being. You can't prove I had anything to do with it. You are a newcomer here. You don't go to church. You encourage controversial ideas in the children.... And Davis is known for his disregard of his daughter. The parents of the girls in the school are not likely to believe you over me."
Sighing, Mark looked at Steven again. "I guess you need to remind him?"
David sneered. "I haven't forgotten your little tape recorder. I can admit to a bit of dishonesty in the course of trying to ascertain the safety of one of my students. Anyone would do it."
Steven frowned. "The people might buy that. The courts would not," he said firmly.
Ward smile was malicious. "So? That won't stop any 'accidents' that might happen after news gets out."
"Accidents?" Mark asked quietly.
"Accidents happen," Ward said casually. "Everyone knows that. And you don't fit in here."
"That's a threat, isn't it?" Mark asked, looking at Steven. "Sounds like one to me."
"I haven't threatened you," Ward said. "I simply said that people will not be happy with you. How could I possibly be a threat to you if you have me locked away?"
Mark laughed. "This isn't television, Ward, where you can get away with that. A reasonable man would take that as a threat, which is all that's required."
Ward stared but them for a while, then finally sighed. "Look. Let's put our cards on the table here. Life can go on, as it did, except perhaps a bit more conveniently for you. Forget what I mentioned earlier... if she's your wife, of course you don't want to share her. Let's work together here to reach an amicable solution, no threats."
"I doubt that my son-in-law sees any possible 'amicable' solution," Steven said coolly.
Mark frowned grimly. "You know, Steven... I'm not sure Kristen would've told you if Ward had made a pass at her," he said thoughtfully.
Steven nodded, his face just as grim. "But she would now. Or she'd tell you."
"Listen... if you do anything, this whole thing is going to come out into the open," the principal warned. "All of it."
"All of what?" Mark asked.
"How you seduced her, then convinced her she was in love with you." Ward looked at him sneeringly. "How Steven probably paid you to marry her after he found out about it. She'll be humiliated."
Mark laughed again. "Once again, you've got the wrong end of the stick."
"Wouldn't you rather she spend the next four years as a normal teenager?" David asked. "Without people knowing?"
"What, knowing that she's in love? Frankly, she'd love to be able to be my wife openly."
Ward sighed. "All right, Hasseran. What do you want? Money? Perks? To use my office as your little love nest on your break? Spit it out!"
Mark shook his head, looking at Steven. "I'm impressed. It's amazing how wrong one person can be."
"Just tell me, damn it!" The principal snapped. "What. Do. You. Want?"
"You don't get it. I don't want anything. You can blackmail me. You can't threaten me. And you can't bribe me."
"Mark," Steven interjected quietly, "can I talk to you a moment? Privately?"
"Sure," Mark nodded, and stepped over to Steven.
"Son," Steven whispered, "I hate it, but we can't be sure that all of the pictures are just of you and Kristen. If things to get out, then there's likely to be a very thorough investigation. Understand?"
Mark nodded thoughtfully. "You've got a point. But we've got to make him give up something, or he'll smell a rat," he finally said reluctantly. "Um... anyway, we can work this where Kristen and I can be publicly married? And I want to know who he got the pictures from."
Steven nodded. "It was MY house, Mark. I do, too."
"What do you think we can get?" Mark asked.
"I don't know. The school board will be the ones to make a decision concerning your job if your marriage became public knowledge. Tell me, truly how important is it to you?"
"My job, or it being public knowledge?"
"My job..." Mark sighed. "I like teaching. That's why I'm doing it, rather than making triple my salary or more elsewhere. But I know that Kristen would feel a lot better if we didn't have to hide. I would, too, because I think sometimes having to hide makes her feel ashamed."
Steven nodded. "So here's what we ask for. He does have weight with the school board. Most of them would love to see Kristen safely married and away from their precious sons. We want the two of you to be able to be open and we want that name."
"Right." Mark nodded. "That works."
"Your game, son. Lay it out however you want. But I want that name."
Mark turned back to Ward, an annoyed expression on his face. "All right. He's convinced me that it would be easier to make a deal. Here's the deal: you get the school board to bless my marriage to Kristen, and tell us where you got the pictures, and we won't press charges."
Ward shook his head. "I might can swing the school board, but I honest to God do not know where the pictures came from. They really were from an anonymous source."
"How did you get them, then?" Mark asked.
He shrugged. "In the mail. No return address."
Mark frowned, glancing worriedly at Steven, who said bluntly, "You said there were more of them, Ward. And negatives."
He nodded. "I have some of them. There was also a letter. It said it was from 'a concerned citizen' and promised to furnish more pictures in order to 'see justice done.'"
"What did it say you would have to do to get the additional pictures?" Mark asked.
"Nothing. There was no way to contact the source. It just said more would be provided."
Steven narrowed his eyes. "Fine. You are going to help us find out, then. Any problems with that?"
Ward sighed. "No, no problem. But the best way to do that would be for nothing to change. If it becomes public knowledge that you married the... married her, then there'd be no reason for him to send more pictures. Which do you want more -- the name, or the school board's blessing?"
Mark's frown deepened, but he didn't answer until Steven prodded him. "Mark? I want that name, but... it's up to you."
He sighed, gritting his teeth. "Fine. Nothing changes for now. But once we know who it is, then you help me with the school board."
"Agreed," Ward said. "But I want the tape in exchange, too, once everything is out. And any copies."
Mark looked questioningly at Steven, who frowned, and shook his head. "I'll destroy the tape once she graduates. Not before. As long as you're not a threat to her, I won't use it against you."
Ward didn't like that, but he had little choice. "Your word that you will destroy it?" he insisted.
"All right. My word," Steven agreed.
"Then we have a deal. So take the pictures and get the fuck out of my office!"
"One more thing," Mark said. "You get any more envelopes that you think have pictures in them, turn them over to us without opening them. I had a class in forensics; maybe there'll be pollen or something inside that will help us."
Once in the relative privacy of the hall, Mark let out a long, slow sigh.
"What do you think?" Steven asked.
"I don't know. I really don't. But I don't like it."
Steven nodded. "Me either. I'll go over the house with a fine-toothed comb, of course. But the suspects are extremely limited."
"Who could it... Vanessa?" Mark asked, the light suddenly dawning.
"The only one with real motive."
"And... she had access," Mark agreed.
"Exactly." Steven's face was grim. "If we could find proof... and find her, I'd be much happier."
"I think we need to have a talk with Kristen tonight," Mark said thoughtfully. "Find out everything she remembers."
Steven nodded. "I don't expect it will help all that much, though. The bitch was clever."
"Yeah, but she thought Kristen was stupid, so she might not have been as careful around her."
"We can hope," Steven said with a sigh. "But, son... I don't know that we will find all the cameras. And if it's not Vanessa, then they could be anywhere. Not just in my house."
"I know. What do we do?"
Steven sighed again, tiredly. "I'd say it's more what you don't do, Mark."
He frowned. "That's going to be a problem, Steven. Healthwise, if you take my meaning."
"I know it's a problem. But... damn it, I want her to be happy and 'full' as much as you do, but until you find a safe solution, then 'not starving' is going to have to be enough. If you got put in prison, I don't think she'd survive it."
Mark nodded. "I know. I'm going to pick one room of the house and go over it with a magnifying glass... literally. And... " He smiled suddenly. "And I've been considering some remodeling. I think I'll just extend it some."
"You do that, Mark. I'm going to go home and start on my house. And, son... watch that bastard close." "I am. And I'm going to warn Kristen and her friends. Wait! Aren't there agencies that specialize in this sort of thing? For celebrities and the like? Maybe we should just hire one of those -- they've got the experience."
"Hmmm... and they tend to be discreet," Steven murmured. "If they're not, then they don't get repeat business. Yes, that's an excellent idea. I'll look around and find out what we need to do, then let you know."
Kristen was in his next class, right before lunch, so he just had her stay after class. She picked up on his tension right away. "What's wrong?"
"We had a bit of trouble this morning," he said quietly. "We'll talk about it later, but for now, Dr. Ward knows about you and me being married. He tried to cause some problems, but I think your father and I have taken care of it for now. Don't trust him, though. Don't say anything that could get us in trouble, for now, in either home or the cars -- they might be bugged. If you can quietly warn Kayla and Aaron, do so, but make sure you can't be overheard. He doesn't know about them."
She stared at him, wide-eyed. "God... what are we going to do about it?" she whispered.
He smiled a bit. "Like I said, we've pulled his teeth, I think. We'll discuss it later tonight."
"I hope so," she said with a shiver. "I'll tell Kayla and Aaron to stay away this weekend. Shit."
He shook his head. "Actually, I thought maybe she'd want to use one of her coupons. We could go to Dallas."
Her eyes lit up. "Oh! Yes, that sounds wonderful! Besides, we need to get her fitted by Johann in time for him to make her a dress for the dance."
He nodded. "And we can see if Aaron wants to come along."
She giggled. "Love, you could tell Aaron that you were making a trip into hell to pick up brimstone and needed him to come along to be the currency, and he'd still want to go with you."
He chuckled. "Point."
Stopping by Steven's on the way home, he found that the security team his father-in-law had found was already there and quite active. They'd swept his house first and found nothing. The cars were also clean. So far, in fact, they'd found just two cameras, both at Steven's house: one in Kristen's bedroom and one in Steven's.
As he drove up, they were busy dusting the cameras for fingerprints. Fortunately, their equipment was surprisingly mobile, and there was no need to wait for things to be shipped off to a lab. Unfortunately, the prints they found didn't show up in the criminal database. However, Vanessa had had a small office in the house, and there were plenty of prints around for them to match.
It wasn't much of a surprise, but it was still a relief to know. Though the shadowy figure he'd caught on tape planting the threats in Kristen's locker was far too large to be Vanessa, so that still left another, unknown, enemy. Possibly. It could have been Ward.
Once the team had packed up and left (leaving behind a fascinating array of tiny cameras and microphones scattered around the house, aimed at catching any intruder who might be, say, returning for their cameras) he called Kayla to let her know everything was clear. She called Aaron, and he picked her up and gave her a ride to the house. Once everyone was gathered, he brought them up to date on everything he knew before looking at Steven. "We know who did this now, don't we? So we can have Ward go to the school board?"
"Yes, we certainly can."
"I'll talk to him on Monday, then," Mark said.
Steven smiled. "Be sure to point out that the cameras were found. There will be no further pictures from his 'source', if he'd hoped to receive something more incriminating."
Mark nodded. "And we've never done anything with Kayla or Aaron over here, so we're safe from that."
"Good. I have private investigators looking for her already, but I'll add some more. Until she's found, though, assume she's a danger," Steven said. "She obviously wants revenge. We can't say how far she'll go to get it."
"Indeed," Mark said. "We need to keep our eyes open."
"So, on that note, I think your plan to spend this weekend in Dallas is an excellent one," Steven said. "Harder for her to find you there. And while you're gone, I'm having a security system installed in your house, Mark."
He nodded thoughtfully. "Good idea. Same company that found the bugs?"
"Yes. They were fast, thorough, and very professional. I am extremely pleased with them so far."
Mark grinned. "I suspect they are more than happy to have a lawyer of your caliber pleased with them."
"They're not unhappy, that's for certain." Steven smiled. "Many of my clients require such services. They will be highly recommended. Until she's found, I'd prefer for you to spend as many weekends as possible in Dallas or some other large city. To this end, I've opened an account for travel expenses. Don't hesitate to use it. This is my fault. If I hadn't been so blind, I would have taken care of that little bitch years ago."
Mark nodded, a touch reluctantly. "All right. If I could afford to travel every weekend... but I can't, not really, so thanks. Hmm... Kayla, how are your parents at keeping things quiet? If I told them that I'd been asked to take Kristen out of the city for safe keeping, and I'd like you and Aaron to come along as chaperones and to keep her company, could they keep that to themselves? We'd need to make certain that word doesn't get back to Ward."
She considered it for a moment. "They... probably could. My parents don't talk much to anyone in town, anyway. And they both loathe Ward. I don't think they'd mind."
"Ah... and if we imply that Ward would just love to make trouble for Kristen over something like this..."
"Yep," she nodded. "They do like Kris. Always have." She grinned evilly. "They think she's a good influence on me."
Mark laughed. "If they only knew..."
"Well," Kayla said, "considering what they're happy about is her 'feminizing' influence, I can't see that they'd have any reason to complain." Her grey eyes sparkled mischievously.
"Well, she's certainly having a... feminine influence on you," Mark agreed. "Definitely instrumental in making you into a woman."
Both girls giggled, then Kayla said, "She got me in a dress, anyway. Okay, Aaron sweetie, drive me home and I'll pack a bag and tell my parents. We'll stop by your house and pick up anything you need, and then meet y'all back here? Or at your house?"
"At my house, I think," he said, then looked at Steven thoughtfully. "It might be a good idea to have them replace the door of the basement with a steel one, with a reinforced frame so that if worst comes to worst, we've got a place to hide."
Steven nodded slowly. "Maybe a tunnel leading out, as well."
"Good idea," Mark said. Hmm... have them set up the tunnel out so that we can use it to get in as well, but securely -- three combination locks, or some such."
"I'm sure the security company will have some suggestions, as well," Steven said. "It can be done under cover of the remodeling you were wanting to do. As your wedding is going to soon be public knowledge, it's quite feasible for me to have it done as a wedding present for my only child. Bathroom totally redone, bedroom new paneling and ceiling? Anything else?"
"Hmm. Just how old is that house?"
"Quite old," Steven said. "Possibly as much as 100 years, though it was renovated not too long ago. Why?"
"I was wondering about the safety of the wiring."
"Like I said, it was renovated about 10 years ago, when the owner was trying to find a buyer for it."
"Good," Mark said. "That makes me feel better. Hmm. Why not have them hide the entrance from the basement into the tunnel?" He grinned. "It was your idea, but I must admit I've always wanted a secret door in my house. Ever since I was a kid."
Steven smiled indulgently. "That's only sensible. If you have to use your escape tunnel, it's obviously best if whoever drove you to it has no idea where you've gone."
Mark nodded. "I guess it was too much Hogan's Heroes."
"Or too much Heinlein," Steven agreed. "Any event, with bonuses there should be serious progress made over this weekend. Until it's done, you can stay with me, of course."
Mark nodded. "My other thought is... well, Kristen's had some really nasty dreams. And I'm worried they might be... prophetic. If so, and if she does end up kidnapped, I want us to be able to get into the basement if that's where whoever takes her goes. So the hiding method should include something like that in the considerations."
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