BEST BET
is the fourth and final book in the Hallie Palmer series after BEGINNER’S LUCK, HEART’S DESIRE and THE BIG SHUFFLE.

Best Bet

Chapter 1

The good news is that I've had only one roommate this past semester. The bad news is that she plays Enya night and day. At this point it's questionable what's going to happen first - graduation from the Cleveland Art Institute and a college degree, or drowning myself in the Orinoco Flow.

Everyone else is either studying for final exams or preparing to go home for the holidays. I, on the other hand, am packing up for good. By attending summer school the past two years it was possible to make up the semesters I missed after Dad died.

I check my e-mails one last time before unplugging the computer. Craig Larkin has sent one simply saying: Lark N. Larkin. As a goof we sometimes send each other ridiculous names that we could use for our children, though we're not even engaged. It's just for fun. Craig has been my on and off boyfriend since high school, but for the past two years we've been seeing each other exclusively. He was a straight-A student and star athlete while I won the award for most days missed to go and bet on the horses at the racetrack. But my older and wiser friend Olivia Stockton insists that Craig is a closet Bohemian because he talks to trees when he thinks no one is around. I respect him most for following his heart, like when he dropped out of college to start this pond building business, and everyone was against the idea at the time. (Including me, big idiot that I am.)

There's a message saying that my cap and gown will be shipped to my home address, and also one asking me to stop by the Dean's Office. It must be about unpaid library fines. Last year my roommate owed almost two hundred dollars, so we had to buy a couple of kegs and hold a Fine Party.

In the lobby of my dorm I use the pay phone to call Craig, since I'm the only person on the planet without a cell phone.

"Where are you?" he asks. "For lunch I'm making chocolate chip pancakes with hot fudge and whipped cream!"

"Filling all the holes in the walls with toothpaste took longer than I thought," I explain. "And now I have to go and deal with some unpaid fine or something, which I really don't understand because I haven't even been in the library this semester."

"Should I reschedule my appointment for this afternoon, so I can be here to help you unpack?" asks Craig.

"Gosh, no," I say. "From now on we're going to be together for- …well, a lot of the time." Craig and I rented an apartment in Cincinnati, where I've landed an entry-level job with an Internet marketing firm, and he'll continue to run his pond building business, which has really taken off over the past year.

"All right," says Craig. "I'll see you at your mom's for dinner tonight and we'll have chocolate chip pancakes tomorrow and every day after that."

"Absolutely," I say. "Don't lose that recipe!"

Walking across the Quad and over to the administrative building is not the usual study in campus life where students mill around laughing and chatting, have coffee on a bench, or play hacky sack near the fountain. Instead, young men and women stumble along with books clutched to their chests and baseball caps pushed low on their foreheads, glancing neither left nor right. The freshmen are the worst looking of the lot, absolute zombies. After three months of hard partying, muddled minds now have to cash all those blank checks written by their bodies back in the fall.

While waiting my turn in the Dean's Office I actually get excited about my future plans. Finally, a place of my own where I can put any darn thing I want on the wall and leave it up until I get tired of it or it falls down. And no more having to pack a bag on weekends to see Craig - forgetting to include the books I need or the right clothes for whatever we end up doing.

Finally the secretary's voice calls out "Hallie Palmer" and I'm ushered into Mr. Muller's office. Mr. Dakin, my regular guidance counselor, retired this past fall and Mr. Muller has replaced him.

"Good afternoon Ms. Palmer. I'm glad you could make it on such short notice." His eyebrows rise as he finishes each sentence. And his smile is more like what you get from squinting into harsh sunlight.

"Hey." I sit down in the chair opposite his desk.

"We have an interesting situation," continues Mr. Muller.

Uh-oh. I immediately assume that I've failed one of my final exams. But even if that's the case, my grades were good going into them.

Mr. Muller glances down at a file on his desk. "You took psychology as a science in the second semester of your freshmen year."

I recall wanting to get the required courses out of the way as soon as possible and memorizing a bunch of stuff about trained rats and Pavlov's dogs. "The professor gave me a B," I say. You only need to earn C's in the basic requirements.

"Yes, but by taking psychology as a science you fulfilled the natural science requirement but not the social science requirement," says Mr. Muller. "It can't be used for both."

I'm confused. "Before planning the last two semesters Mr. Dakin went over my transcript and said I'd completed all the required classes and only needed to worry about finishing up my major."

"Yes, well that seems to have been be an oversight," says Mr. Muller. "Mr. Dakin, was … well … he probably should have retired a little earlier."

I'd thought there was something a little odd about Mr. Dakin during that last meeting. A sixty foot paperclip chain took up a good portion of his office and he kept turning the conversation to the weaponization of space.

"The bottom line is that you need one more 4-credit class to graduate," says Mr. Muller.

"What?!"

"Yes, I'm very sorry to be the bearer of bad news." The eyebrows go up and the squint is more pained, less smiley.

"But I have a job in Cincinnati! They hired someone with a college degree."

In a calming voice Mr. Muller says, "Don't worry. I'll explain what happened to your new employer. Take the class at a college in Cincinnati and simply transfer the credits back here. You can still walk the stage at graduation this January if you like."

I breathe a sigh of relief. It's bad, but not that bad.

"The only thing is that if you complete the course here, we won't charge you, because of the misunderstanding," says Mr. Muller. "But if you decide to take it elsewhere, the school can't reimburse you."

"Huh?"

"You need a social science worth 4 credits - something like economics, anthropology, or political science. Or if you want to use the psych class you already took to fulfill your social sciences requirement then you can take another science class. He picks up a catalogue and begins reading. "Biology, chemistry, physics…"

No way! I haven't had a science class since tenth grade, and that was something horrible about rocks.

"Don't get me wrong, Mr. Muller, I've really enjoyed college. But I turned twenty-one in September and am ready to move on with my life. I'm tired of classes, homework, and commuting every other weekend."

"I'm so sorry," he says. "I realize we have some responsibility here and we're trying to do what we can to help. But unfortunately I can't just give you credits that you didn't earn."

"Would it be okay if I take some time to think about this?"

Mr. Muller squints, this time as if he smells something unpleasant. "Registration for the spring semester was a month ago and our offices close on Friday for the holidays. You'll need to let me know by tomorrow. If you want to stay here I can extend your dorm for a semester at no charge. I've already checked and no one is scheduled to move in."

"Yeah, it's safe to say that everyone on campus has heard Orinoco Flow blasting from our room at two o'clock in the morning."

Mr. Muller walks me to the door. Based on the stack of folders on his desk, Mr. Dakin apparently made a few other oversights. Like about two hundred.

It feels as if I'm walking out of a doctor's office after receiving some horrible diagnosis. I can't even remember which way to turn in order to leave the building. Guys are up on ladders fixing panels in the ceiling. Suddenly my feet fly out from under me and the next thing I know I'm sliding through a puddle on my butt.

"Whoops-a-daisy!" a janitor shouts as he drops his mop and comes running over.

While helping me to my feet he asks, "Didn't you see the signs?"

I glance around. "You mean the half dozen three-foot-high bright yellow ones that say WET FLOOR?"

"The roof is leaking," he explains.

"I wasn't paying attention."

"You'll have to use the doors on the other side of the building."

I must look confused because he points me in the right direction and then continues shouting directions as I walk.

The outside air is crisp but not really all that cold for the middle of December. It's the longest fall I can remember. Some of the trees still have a few leaves bravely hanging in there and the wind whips around scattered bits of paper.

Approaching the Quad, I run into Josh, who is now attending classes here for what must be the sixth year. He's changed his major about once a month and so now we're both seniors, only he has A LOT of minors. Despite my big crush on Josh two years ago, we'd ended up just being friends. By the time I arrived back at school after Dad died I was going steady with Craig and Josh had a girlfriend.

"Hey Hallie - you look terrible!" says Josh, who has somehow completely dodged acne and remains boy band cute. "Everything okay?"

"About five minutes ago I was told that I'm not graduating."

"What?" From the look on his face I can tell he thinks that I've been expelled. This is not surprising since there was a run of pranks this fall, including dismantling the President's Mercedes and reassembling it on top of the field house.

"No, I mean I'm four credits short, a social science - a stupid mix-up because Mr. Dakin had Alzheimer's during his final year in guidance. I should have known something was up when he kept showing me photos of the soapbox race cars he was building."

"I heard about that!" says Josh. "He wrote a fellowship recommendation for my friend Isabel and said she was 'in possession of a pulchritudinous posterior.'"

My eyes widen. "The administration has obviously known about this for a while! It doesn't seem fair. I feel like I should be able to sue them…or something."

"Just stay for one more semester." Josh, who is bordering on becoming a permanent student, sounds enthusiastic about the prospect.

"I have a job lined up in Cincinnati. I mean, it isn't first prize - an assistant in the marketing department at this Speakers' Bureau, laying out its brochures and stuff, but it would give me some experience." I don't tell Josh the worst thing about the job, which is that the women are required to wear pantsuits and even skirts sometimes!

"I thought you wanted to work on product design."

"I do," I reply. "But I don't have so much as an internship on my resume. I've worked as a gardener every summer since I was sixteen."

"Take the class in Cincinnati and transfer it back here," says Josh.

"I guess that's the solution," I say. "Craig is planning to move there with me. We've already found an apartment."

"That's the guy I see you with sometimes, from back home?" I know he doesn't mean back home to sound negative but it does, as if I never really grew at college.

I rub my fingers on my temples. "It's just that in my head I was finished with school, you know?"

"Hey, I've got an idea!" Josh says with the same thrill that probably overcomes him every time he switches majors. "Next semester I'm going around the world with a team from the sociology department. A professor has grant money to do a study."

"Around the world?"

"To a dozen different countries," says Josh. "We leave wallets on the ground during rush hour containing money and I.D. to see if people return them, and if so, whether the money is still there."

It sounds ridiculous but I'm so confused at this moment I doubt anything would make much sense.

Taking my arm, Josh leads me toward the humanities building. "Oh my gosh, Hallie - this is perfect! One of the girls on the team broke her leg playing Frisbee yesterday and we didn't think we could replace her on such short notice. It totally messes up the hotel arrangements because she was supposed to room with Amanda and I'm in with this guy who's a grad student at Ohio State."

"How do you break a leg playing Frisbee?" I ask.

"Maybe it was dark," says Josh.

There were crazier stories, like the freshman who went hang gliding from the bell tower in order to ask some girl to homecoming.

Josh leads me to a group of offices I've never before been inside. We go right past the secretary and to a room in the back with a green nameplate that says "Ms. Pritchett" on it in white letters. Inside a woman who can't be older than twenty-eight sits at a desk heaped with paperwork.

Josh knocks on the door but then walks right in, pushing me ahead of him as if delivering a virgin for the altar sacrifice. "Ms. Pritchett - you'll never believe this! Hallie needs four credits in social sciences to graduate - she could take Lenore's place."

Ms. Pritchett doesn't look nearly as thrilled as Josh. In fact, for a woman who is naturally attractive, her pinched expression and furrowed brow make her appear anything but.

"Are you a student here?" Ms. Pritchett peers at me over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses like a librarian on the prowl for sticky fingers and overdue books.

I begin to explain the crazy mix-up. Only when Ms. Pritchett hears the words "Mr. Dakin," she stops me as if that explains everything.

"Bummer," throws in Josh.

"Please have a seat," says Ms. Pritchett.

Clearing some file folders off a chair, I sit down.

Ms. Pritchett repeats what Josh told me, only in slightly greater detail. For her PhD. she's doing a studying the honesty of ordinary people in different countries and how their social structures, mores, and religion can impact integrity. Josh wasn't kidding - this small group is traveling to a dozen different countries, all expenses paid. And without another girl, they'll be short one worker.

It sounds totally crazy. I don't know what to say and just sit there as if I've been abducted by aliens and am waiting for the mind melds or the body probes to begin.

"Would it fill Hallie's requirement?" asks Josh.

Ms. Pritchett phones the guidance department. She places her hand over the receiver for a second. "Who's your new counselor?"

"Mr. Muller," I reply.

After a short conversation Ms. Pritchett establishes that the project would be considered a pass/fail independent study in sociology and makes me eligible for graduation in the spring. Only she still doesn't appear all that enthusiastic about having me on board. When Ms. Pritchett presents her formal offer it sounds more like she merely needs me so there will be enough worker bees to complete her all-important research.

"You'll need a doctor's certificate," Ms. Pritchett states as if it's a done deal. "Can you be at the Cleveland airport at 6 PM on January 10th?" She hands me a folder with the name "Lenore Gomez" written at the top.

"Uh, can I think about it?"

"You're not afraid to fly, are you?"

"No, of course not." The truth is that I've never been on a plane before and so how would I even know. But I'd applied for a passport junior year while having hallucinations about spending spring break in Cancun. "I…uh…made some other plans that I'd have to change. Mr. Muller just told me about this mess a half hour ago."

"Ms. Pritchett glances down at her watch as if the plane is departing in fifteen minutes."

"I have to switch the plane reservations to your name, get an insurance card, and submit the final list to the administration. You have exactly one week, until December 26th." She jots something on the back of a business card and hands it to me. "Here's my home number."

Josh and I walk out together. "Hallie, you just have to come! It's going to be so awesome - we're traveling to Australia and Morocco and Hawaii. Three weeks from now you could be lying on the beach in the sun." He waves his arms in the direction of the naked branches that will soon be frosted with snow. "Look at the list - Egypt is on there - you can see the pyramids. And India - the Taj Mahal."

"Yeah, but aren't we supposed to be dropping wallets all over town?"

"I talked to one of the guys who went on the last trip and they had plenty of time for sightseeing." He smiles and laughs. "And partying!"

"Ms. Pritchett seems rather young, mean, and ambitious."

"Oh she's not so bad once you get to know her," says Josh. "She had a fight with her department head at Ohio State before coming here and this research project is really important for her career. There's only one more group after us and then she can write her paper, get a PhD, publish, apply for tenure somewhere - all that academic crap."

The clock begins to bong twelve o'clock and Josh appears panicked. "I've got an exam!" He runs off in the direction of the math building.

Other students scramble past me. I glance down at the folder in my hand and read the words "Winter Experiment" written on the outside in black magic marker. Wow, a trip around the world. Only what about the job in Cincinnati and the start of my career? And what about Craig? Sure, we've had our problems in the past, but everything is fine now, and we've finally decided to start a real life together. Okay, so maybe my budgeting and bill paying skills aren't all that great, and Craig, the beloved only child of well-to-do parents, has never made a bed or vacuumed in his life, but surely these things can be worked out. I could get one of those computer programs to help with the finances. If it's really good there might even be money left over for a housekeeper!

I can't help but wonder if all this would've happened had the door I'd originally tried using to leave the guidance offices not been cordoned off. It's doubtful I'd have run into Josh. And so I wouldn't have found out about the trip. Or what if Lenore hadn't been playing Frisbee in the dark? Or if Mr. Dakin hadn't mucked up my schedule in the first place?

Pastor Costello is always saying that "Coincidence is God's way of being anonymous." And at moments like this, I wonder if maybe there really is such a thing as fate.



© Copyright 2007, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.