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Penalty Kill

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Chapter One

Being called into the principal’s office was never a good thing, especially when you knew your job was on the line. Those little darlings had done nothing but give Becca trouble ever since the moment she set foot in the doors of Tiger High, and now that they’d failed their state standardized tests, she was on the chopping block. This is what a college education will get you, kids, she thought as she took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

It was worse than she thought. Not only were the principal and vice principal there, but the big-haired human resources coordinator and the eternally pissed-off superintendent were both in attendance. Fuck me. She ran through the list of offenses she’d committed in the past few months and knew she had racked up at least three “f” words in the classroom. Two unapproved pizza parties, a PG-13 movie, a lesson on the Oedipal aspects of Family Guy and about a hundred diet sodas could be added to that list.

She was done for. This was worse than when she’d lost her job at the university due to the state’s budget cuts. She was one of eight in her department who had been let go, one of thirty across the university. And she’d been stuck in high school hell for the past two years. Last year went as smoothly as anyone’s first year could possibly go, but this year the entire school system was in trouble. Public school was facing a major government takeover, and this school’s success depended on nine students whose chances of passing their tests were slim to none, no fault of their own.

The system sucked to say the least, and Becca had been more than vocal about pointing out its failings. In fact, every time a new consultant was hired by the district to come in and evaluate the students and faculty, they claimed to know how to fix the problems in the school. With a high school of only two hundred and fifty students, Becca had thought it could be fixed, but she was no longer going to be a part of that process.

The principal began, “We’ve been investigating you and have discovered you’ve violated school policy.”

The only thing that sank in was how the town’s name was misspelled on the screensaver glowing behind the principal’s head. She also noted, now, how everyone was sitting in a semi-circle with her in the middle. She wished she hadn’t sat down. Would they fire her if she were standing up?

Becca’s voice caught in her throat. For all her education, a Ph.D. in English, and her experience teaching for twelve years at the university, she was dumbstruck. She was one of the most effective teachers at the school, even if she didn’t like the kids very much. She’d always been fair to them and had become a confidant to many of them who had no one else to talk to. Of course, at the end of the day, she left her work at work and didn’t take the kids’ personal problems home with her. But she also didn’t fit in with the school’s clique.

The principal and the counselor were sisters. Their brother-in-law was the football coach. The former principal’s son taught science, and the principal before him had a son who taught math. The vice principal was also related to them all in some way which Becca hadn’t quite figured out. All of these things stacked against her as she weighed the words.

“We will be terminating you, effective immediately, but we have to give you the option to resign.” There was no sincerity in her tone, no hint of thanks for saving their ass last year when their other English teacher quit. Nothing but cold words hung in the air.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Fired? She was being fired? Based on what grounds? What policy had she violated that warranted this? They must have discovered she showed parts of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail when discussing irony and satire. She bit her lip. For someone who was pretty outspoken, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. How could they fire her in the middle of a school year? They hadn’t even given her a warning. In a small town like this with nothing better to do than spread gossip, she was sure the locals would come up with a very colorful reason why she’d been let go. She groaned at the thought.

“What do you want us to do?” The principal waited for her answer. No one else said anything at all.

The Human Resources lady looked straight ahead, her helmet-hair looking ridiculous as she refused to look Becca in the eyes. The superintendent looked as if she had more pressing matters and this was merely procedure. Becca’s face reddened as she fought back tears of rage.

“Resign, I guess.” It was pretty much all she could manage at the moment. If she said much more, she would surely start crying, and she wasn’t about to let this hen party think they had upset her. Quite the opposite. She was so pissed she thought her head might explode. Becca suppressed a smile as she thought of helmet-hair trying to wash bits and pieces of her brain out of that ’do. It would take a month.

“Then sign this. You have fifteen minutes to collect your things, turn in your keys and leave the premises.”

Becca looked down at the paper. ‘I _____ resign from _____ position effective _____ date. Signed _____. Witness one _____. Witness two _____.’ There was no school board letter head or anything else official about the paper. She signed it despite every good instinct in her body.

“Thanks,” she managed as she stood and made her way back to her classroom.

Fifteen minutes. Resigned. No, fired. What the hell was she going to do now? She had bills to pay, insurance, medication she needed to keep her from going batshit crazy. And it was December, a week and a half before Christmas. What were the possibilities of getting another job in another school system? Zero to none.

It wasn’t like she had family here anymore. Thank God, she hadn’t booked that holiday trip to Cancun. How much money did she have in her savings? She had never been known for sound financial decisions, so that answer was easy enough to come by. None. Nothing except for today’s paycheck. This was so bad.

Her hands shook and her mind went numb as she tossed random items into boxes. Becca was sure she was forgetting something, but at this point it really didn’t matter. There was nothing in the room that couldn’t be replaced. She managed to grab a folder marked “Confidential” and very little else of any consequence. As soon as she got into the car, she reached for her phone.

Shaky fingers dialed her younger brother. Relief swept through her when he answered.

“It’s your quarter.”

She didn’t bother to correct him on the fact that phone calls no longer cost a quarter. Instead, she fought back tears as she spoke. “Austin, I’ve got a hell of a problem.”

* * *

Memphis was not part of the plan, but there were no jobs in Texas at the moment, and Austin was certain this new job was just what she needed. Come North a little ways. Clear your head. Start a love affair, he’d teased. She highly doubted any of those things would happen, but Austin knew of the perfect job, or so he said.

“This is perfect for you,” he drawled. She swore living in Memphis made him sound even more like a hick. He’d always laid on a thick country accent, but now it was even worse than before.

“How could it possibly be perfect for me? I don’t speak Russian.” She’d protested, thinking this was the dumbest plan to date.

“Naw, but you speak American, don’t you?”

“But doing public relations for a hockey team full of Russians? Trying to help them really grasp English sarcasm and slang? I just don’t know. Besides, who named you guy in charge of hiring for the team? I thought you were still working at the bar/restaurant you speak of so highly.”

“I do work there, and you are the queen of sarcasm and slang.” Austin was always so sure of everything. “The team owner comes in all the time. General managers, players, everyone who is associated with the team, and you know they think the world of Ivan, so I happened to mention that you might need a job.”

She groaned. “I know nothing about hockey.”

“Come on. What have you got to lose? Come out here, see if you’re a good match for the team. Give it the old college try,” he put on a fake British accent.

She let out a sigh. “At this point, I guess I have absolutely nothing to lose.” But working PR for a hockey team whose lead scorer was a public relations nightmare? If she could pull this off, she could damn near do anything.

“Good. I already told them you’d be here by the start of the week.”

It was Thursday, so that gave her the weekend to pack. Rolling her eyes at the task ahead of her, she brushed her hair back and began to take stock of things. Sarcasm Queen, indeed. It’s not like she didn’t have a million books to pack up in both her office and at home. Maybe she should consider downsizing and invest in an e-reader. She could always donate her books. A typical academic in some ways, her furniture was sparse. She resisted the urge to just donate everything to Goodwill and walk away with a clean slate. Instead, she grudgingly began packing, cursing Austin along the way.

Damn him, he was always getting her into something. This time the something was helping some young Russian hockey player learn the language a little better. He was an up and coming superstar, but he’d flubbed several recent interviews because his English was not very clear, and he had said several things he shouldn’t have said. Now the team was trying to keep him from becoming a PR nightmare, because while his face loved the camera, his mouth didn’t. So Becca would coach him, teach him to play to the camera, and clean up any messes he left behind. Perfect. She would be a glorified babysitter.

Ever since Austin had hooked up with a former hockey player named Ivan, he thought the world revolved around the sport. He was even working as a cook at a hockey-themed restaurant in Memphis that catered to the local NHL team, the Memphis Mayhem.

She didn’t know why Austin and Ivan couldn’t manage to teach the kid English since they both spoke it well enough. Austin told her the coach had insisted on an English teacher and the team’s owner was willing to pay her moving expenses. He would set her up in an apartment of her choosing, if she would come in and work with this kid and possibly the other guys on the team who needed help.

This was what she’d always dreamed of—an all-expense paid fresh start in a new town. To top it off, she’d be working with grown-ups again. She hated teenagers. They were full of angst, hormones, and shit.

She knew Austin hadn’t told her new boss her degree was in English, but her emphasis area was early American literature. Sure, she taught grammar, and yes, she had a full understanding of pop culture; and, thanks to her recent stint in high school, understood most of the terms in the Urban Dictionary. However, she really, really wasn’t qualified for this job, even if it sounded absolutely perfect. She could spin a line of bullshit to keep the press off the team’s back. Right?

But the allure of a new city, a new beginning, overrode any negative thoughts. Well, almost any. She spent the last week before Christmas packing up her final boxes and did a quick check of her apartment, making a promise to herself: this job would work out. Come hell or high water, this would be the last time she ever had to search for another job. And thankfully, she should be settled in just in time for the New Year.

New job. New Place. New Year. And no nagging insecurities about not fitting in or no guilt about not giving a rat’s ass. She could watch a hockey game or two. It surely wouldn’t kill her. At least it wasn’t football, which she hated with a cold, hard passion.

As she watched the tiny Texas town disappear in her rear-view mirror, country songs flooded her mind. She hated country music, but she had a feeling she was about to get used to a lot of things she’d never considered before.

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