The hat pin rolled easily, six inches of steel shaft with a black plastic head on one end and a filed needle point on the other. Posadas County Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman nudged it back and forth with her right index finger while the three other people sitting at the conference table waited.
Estelle wasn’t paying attention to the weapon. Instead, she watched fourteen-year-old Deena Hurtado. The girl sat between her mother, Ivana, and the middle-school principal, Tessa Dooley. Deena’s mother was trying not to cry, a wadded tissue in both hands. As a longtime District Court employee, she would know something about the law, would know what was coming. As a mother, what she knew would be turning her insides to pudding. Estelle wished that she could read Deena’s mind, but the teenager’s face was a mask of studied indifference. Deena never looked at her mother, and Estelle decided that, despite the girl’s feigned calm, she didn’t enjoy seeing her mother in misery. “Deena,” Estelle said, “you came to school this morning as usual, and then were called out of math class by Ms. Dooley and charged with carrying a concealed weapon on school property. Is that correct?”
“Why would you do that?”
Deena shrugged as if the incident were no more important to her than tossing a gum wrapper on the school parking lot.
“It’s my understanding that you were involved in a fight after the volleyball game Tuesday night. Is that correct?”
“And were suspended for three days? Thursday, Friday, and yesterday?”
“Do you feel good about coming back to school this morning?” The girl shrugged. “Did you want to come back to school, Deena?” The eyes rolled. “Deena,” Estelle persisted, “do you understand the school’s policy about bringing weapons on campus?” Deena grimaced at the notion that there might be something that she didn’t understand, but didn’t answer. “Do you realize that the school’s policy is that you be expelled for the rest of the school year? That it’s automatic?”
A tiny chink formed in the girl’s armor, and she blinked. “And that you will not be allowed admission to any other school in the state during that time?”
Deena sighed with brave boredom. Her mother dabbed at a fresh flood of tears. “It’s not a weapon,” the girl said to the ceiling. Estelle picked up the hat pin by the center of its shaft and spun it slowly between two fingers. “Mobsters used to use these things,” she said, still watching the girl. Deena slumped a little further down in her chair. “It’s as effective as a stiletto, if you know how to use it.” She paused. “Do you know how to use it, Deena?” The middle schooler didn’t reply.
With her index finger, Estelle tapped the end of the pin gently. “Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to file this really sharp,” she said. “That’s an odd thing to do for a hat pin, don’t you think?” She placed the pin on the table. “Ms. Dooley called the police because she had apprehended a student carrying a concealed, deadly weapon. Deena, you had this in the inseam of your jeans, is that correct?”
When Deena remained silent, Tessa Dooley said, “Worked into the jeans’ inseam at the thigh, Undersheriff. We had a bulletin at an administrators’ conference a while ago that this was a new fad in some of the city schools.” She shook her head sadly. “First time for us…that we know of.”
“How was it discovered?” Estelle asked.
“One of the other students saw it and told her math teacher. That’s the class Deena was in at the time. Algebra II, I would like to point out.”
“You’re a smart girl, Deena,” Estelle said. “Do you understand that carrying a concealed weapon onto school grounds is more than just a violation of school policy?”
“Do you understand that it’s a fourth-degree felony? That’s how serious the state considers the offense.”
“Not if you’re a juvenile,” Deena said. A trace of gloat touched her eyes, and when Estelle glanced at the principal, she saw the flush of anger run up Tessa Dooley’s cheeks. Deena was a smart girl, evidently. And she was correct as well. If Estelle had asked her what the procedure was, the girl could no doubt have out- lined it succinctly—referral to Juvenile Probation, conferencing, counseling, warm fuzzies, admonition to keep the nose clean, and a clean record after a time judged appropriate by the court. In short, nothing. And with more than half of the school year remaining, the expulsion meant a nice vacation besides.
Estelle let the silence hang for long enough that Ivana Hurtado had time enough to change tissues.
“Mrs. Hurtado, I’d like permission to talk with your daughter alone,” Estelle said finally. “You don’t have to agree to that, but I think it might help.”
“Of course,” Ivana replied. “Of course, Sheriff.” She gathered up her jacket and handbag.
“We’ll be just outside,” Tessa Dooley said. She heaved her chair backward so that her considerable bulk would clear the edge of the table. In a moment, the door thudded behind the two women. Estelle snapped open her briefcase, found a plastic evidence bag, and dropped the hat pin inside. She jotted a note on the cover tag, her motions not lost on Deena.
“So,” the undersheriff said, and closed the briefcase. She leaned forward, folding her hands together. “I’ve known your mother for a long time.” Deena didn’t respond. “I remember you and your sister playing around the court offices when you were little. That’s a long time ago, huh?”
Deena cocked her head and looked down at her hands. She picked the cuticle of one of her nails, and Estelle saw that they were gnawed raw.
“Tell me about the fight.”
“No big deal,” Deena said and shrugged. “It was a fight, that’s all. Like no big deal.”
Estelle ruffled back several pages in her small notebook. “You and Carmen Acosta, with a little help from friends. Carmen was suspended for six days. She started it?”
“Am I under arrest, or what?” Deena said wearily. “‘Detained’ would be a better word, Deena.” Estelle regarded the girl across the table. She was attractive, fine-featured almost to the point of delicacy. Her light brown hair was cut short enough to see the five gold rings marching up the curve of her right ear. “Have you and Carmen been enemies for a long time?”
“This a recent thing?”
Deena looked heavenward, and then studied the poster on the wall that listed 101 ways to praise a child.
“Did you make a pass at Paul?” Deena’s eyes flicked to Estelle, and her eyebrows furrowed. “Paul Otero is a good-looking young man.” Estelle watched the blush work its way up Deena’s neck. “You showed him some attention, and Carmen took offense.” The fight had hardly been a private affair; half a hundred spectators found the fight more entertaining than the middle-school volleyball game. Two of those spectators had been willing to tell the off-duty deputy who was working security what had happened. Apparently handsome Paul had enjoyed the brawl as much as anyone.
“Soooo stupid,” Deena said.
“The taking offense is stupid, or something else?”
“I just said hello to him. It’s not like we ran off into the bushes or something.”
“And Carmen took offense when you spoke to her boyfriend?
Well, that happens.” “Soooo stupid.”
“Is this the first time you and Carmen have had trouble?” “Yes. She was my best friend in sixth grade.”
“Ah,” Estelle said, surprised by the gratuitous information. “Paul moved here last year, didn’t he?”
Deena’s eyebrows furrowed slightly. “Yes.” She glanced at Estelle as if to ask, “How did you know that?” but didn’t voice the question.
“What were you planning to do with the hat pin, Deena?
Who were you planning to kill?”
Deena startled at the blunt accusation. “I wasn’t going to start anything.”
“You carried it for self-defense, you mean?” Deena nodded. “You felt that maybe Carmen would make trouble again, and just in case, you sharpened up that six-inch hat pin?” Deena shrugged.
“Did Carmen threaten you Tuesday night? After the fight broke up?” The shrug had become the standard answer. “Or this morning? You walk to school, right? Did the two of you exchange words this morning? If she threatened you, that’s our concern, Deena. That’s as much against the law as bringing a lethal weapon to school.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“I think it is a big deal that you’re going to miss the second half of the school year, and have to go to the JPO as well, Deena.” “Well, I can’t help that now, can I?” The girl shook her head in disgust.
“You’re on the honor roll, aren’t you?” “So?”
“In fact, you’re on the principal’s list, isn’t that right?” Deena shrugged. “That means you’re smart enough to figure things out. Maybe you can tell me something.” Estelle shifted position and rested her head on one hand, studying Deena. “Carmen was suspended for six days. That means she doesn’t even come back to school until next Friday. What’s the hat pin for? She won’t even be on campus.”
“Well, duh,” Deena said petulantly. “I walk to school, you know.”
“I know that. And I already asked you if the two of you met again this morning, and didn’t receive an answer. Are Carmen’s friends giving you a hard time now?” Deena shrugged. “Have you figured out how you’re going to tell your dad about all this?” Estelle asked, trying another tack.
Deena’s eyes closed, and for the first time, the tears were right on the edge. Roy Hurtado had worked for the copper mine until it closed the year before Deena was born. He then joined the Posadas Police Department, attended the police academy, and promptly took a security job with the railroad, working out of Deming and Las Cruces.
“I’m sure Mom has that all figured out,” Deena said. “Maybe she does. And what are you going to do now?” Estelle asked.
“I don’t know. I can homeschool. Maybe I’ll go up to Albuquerque and live with my sister for a while.”
“Did you like school here, Deena?”
The girl took a deep, shuddering breath. “Yeah. Like, some of it, anyways.”
“Where did the hat pin come from? Here in town?” “Yeah. Sure.”
“Do you have any more?”
“You can get ’em in the store. It’s no big deal.”
“That’s not what I asked. I asked if you had any more, Deena.” “No, I don’t have any more,” the girl replied.
“Where did you buy it?”
“I just got ’em, is all. It’s no big deal.”
“No, buying them is no big deal, Deena. I can go into the hardware and buy an axe, and that’s no big deal. If I bury that axe in someone’s head, the deal changes, right? I can buy a nice car, and that’s no big deal. If I get drunk and ram that car into someone, the deal changes, doesn’t it?” Estelle patted the briefcase. “The hat pin is sort of like that, Deena. You can buy all of them that you want. Except that both you and I know that you have no use for a six-inch hat pin other than using it as a weapon. That’s what makes it a big deal, Deena…when you carry that concealed weapon into the school. And when you intend to inflict bodily harm on someone else.”
“What am I supposed to do, just let ’em jump me?” “Deena, I know it’s a small town, but you’re a smart girl.”
The smart girl looked heavenward again. “Stay away from Carmen. Stay away from Paul. Mind your own business. You’ve got the rest of the fall semester and then all spring and summer to move beyond this nonsense. Next fall, you and Carmen will be at different schools, even.” Estelle smiled sympathetically. “And odds are good that in two weeks’ time, Carmen and Paul won’t be an item anymore, anyway. He’ll be off breaking some other girl’s heart.”
The undersheriff stood up. “What happens now?” Deena asked, and she sounded like exactly what she was—a frightened middle schooler. Estelle took a step and then paused with her hand on the doorknob.
“Deena, you made a serious mistake. You brought a concealed weapon to school. That’s not something you can do without consequences. You know what the school policy is. You’ll have a lot of time out of school to think about what you did. And during that time, you’ll be talking with Juvenile Probation authorities. They’ll want to be as sure as they can be that this won’t happen again.”
“So you say. But you haven’t been open with me, and that makes me a little leery.”
“I told you the truth.”
“Where did you buy the hat pin, Deena?” The girl didn’t answer, and Estelle said, “That’s what I thought.” She opened the door and waited until the girl’s mother had entered. Principal Tessa Dooley was on the phone and waved a hand for Estelle to go ahead. She closed the door.
“Ivana, I’ll be issuing Deena a nontraffic citation,” Estelle said, opening her briefcase. “After she signs that, you’ll receive a copy.” Ivana nodded miserably but remained silent. “The JPO will be calling to set up an appointment for a conference with Deena and with you. You all will decide where this is going to go from here.”
“She’s been such a good girl,” Ivana managed.
“I’m sure she has been, and we all hope that she will be again,” Estelle said as she filled out the ticket. “But as you know, the law doesn’t care how well she did in Algebra II or in World History when she carries a concealed weapon into school.” The office door opened and Tessa Dooley slid inside. “I’m not a counselor,” Estelle added, “but if I were you, I’d take full advantage of the school’s counseling services at this point.” She slid the completed ticket across to Deena, along with a pen. “Sign by the red X,” she said. “Think of Deena standing at the top of a long, steep, treacherous slope, Ivana,” Estelle added. “She has a lot of choices. Her job is to make sure she doesn’t step the wrong way. Your job is to help her make that decision.”
Estelle closed the briefcase, resting both hands on the locks and regarding Deena Hurtado. “All right?” When neither the mother nor her daughter answered, Estelle turned to Tessa Dooley. The principal held out her hand, grasping Estelle’s in a strong grip. At the same time, she handed the undersheriff a small note.
“The phone call was the elementary school,” the principal said. “Myra Delgado happened to look out her window and see you. She wondered if you would stop by for a few minutes when you’re ready to leave.”
Estelle glanced at her watch. She had intended to catch County Manager Kevin Zeigler when the County Commission meeting adjourned for lunch, but the county manager could wait. Estelle’s oldest son, Francisco, was passionately in love with both the first grade and with his teacher, Myra Delgado.
At home, all he had been able to talk about for the past week was the parent-teacher conference coming up Thursday night. Despite her son’s enthusiasm, Estelle was well aware that, in seven short years, Francisco would be a middle schooler—and the world for him would never again be so simple.
“Sure, I can do that,” Estelle said. “Does anyone have any more questions for me?” She handed one of her cards to Deena. “Use that if you want to talk with me, Deena,” she said. “Anytime.” She was surprised when that earned a small nod from the girl.