Authors: Ryne Douglas Pearson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers, #Suspense & Thrillers
Bryce’s eyes gaped at Jeff, then Joey, then Jeff again. “Where’d you hear that?”
“My mom heard it from a neighbor.”
“How’d your neighbor know?” Bryce asked.
Jeff sneered at his friend, exasperated. “Hool, do I look like a book of answers? I don’t know. My neighbor just knew.”
“Is Miss Austin okay?” Joey asked.
“He didn’t actually get to her.”
“Chuck’s as crazy as Guy was,” Joey said. Someone ran past the trio and tried to cut across the slippery lawn, but ended up on his butt with a grass stain to show for his haste. “Is he in jail?”
Jeff shrugged. “I think they arrested him.”
Bryce shook his head and blew a breath toward the ground. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“Everything’s fine,” Joey said. His voice was flat, and he stared ahead and tapped his leg with a gloved hand as they walked.
“Joey and I went by Elena’s house yesterday,” Jeff told Bryce.
“Was she there?”
“We didn’t see her, but some woman came out.”
“Who was she?”
“She got into an unmarked car,” Jeff said suggestively.
“It was a car, Jeff,” Joey corrected. He sped up and walked ahead of his friends, tired of conspiracy, tired of whining. Just plain tired.
“What’s with him?” Jeff asked as Joey weaved through a loose crowd squeezing through the gate.
“His dad was supposed to call him last night,” Bryce said.
“Oh.” Jeff understood and asked no more. He and Bryce gave their friend his space and followed him through the main gate as the first bell rang.
* * *
Fewer stares tracked them this second day back, but when Joey neared room 18 there was one pair of eyes that set upon him in a dispassionate gaze. Strange eyes. Adult eyes.
Joey slowed. Jeff and Bryce caught up and came alongside.
“You see him?” Joey asked.
Both did, but Jeff was the one to speak. “Who’s he?”
“I don’t know,” Joey said.
The man focused fully on them. They walked on, trying not to look.
“Hey, look,” Bryce whispered.
Mrs. Gray went up to the man, said something to him, and they shared a smile. When she left him she walked past the three boys and said, “Good morning, gentlemen.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Gray,” they said together.
“Maybe he’s a sub,” Bryce suggested as they closed on their room. The line had already formed against the outside wall.
“He’s not a sub,” Joey said. He was looking right at the man now, and the man right at him. His eyes seemed more than little oval organs that spun at the world and gave it color and form. These eyes were spitting something back at what they held. At Joey.
Jeff and Bryce took their places at the end of the line, but Joey went to the front to where Michael waited on the stoop.
“Hi, Joey,” Tommy Barrow said.
Joey ignored him and stepped close to Michael. “Who is that?”
“He’s been standing there since first bell,” Michael answered. “Mrs. Gray’s talked to him a couple of times, but she didn’t tell him to leave or anything.”
Joey nodded and went to the back of the line, taking his place just as PJ walked up. “Hey guys.”
“Hey,” Jeff said, then looked past the other classes. Elena was nowhere to be seen. “Joey...”
“Two days in a row,” Bryce commented.
Jeff nudged PJ. “Joey and I walked by her house yesterday.”
PJ turned to Joey. “You did?”
Joey nodded, but his interest was elsewhere. “PJ, have you seen that man before?”
PJ looked, and noticed immediately that the stranger’s stare laid fast upon her. Her nape prickled as though tiny spiders with icy legs were racing to hide in her hair. The chill followed them and spread over her scalp. “No.”
The second bell sliced the moment. PJ shuddered, eyes going to the door, though a few continued to steal glances at the man.
Mary opened the door and came onto the stoop. “Good morning.”
The greeting was chorused back to her. She let Michael hold the door and stepped back inside. The class began to file in.
Joey forced himself to ignore the stranger and started in, then stopped and turned to PJ behind. “Ladies first.”
A warm bulge rolled down her throat, the kind of warm she dreamed of, a warm that scattered the invisible arachnids mingling above her neck to places unknown. She stepped past and, trying not to look like she was about to faint, headed for the door. Joey stayed close behind. When he was on the second step of the stoop, the expression on Michael’s face made him look back.
The stranger was following him in.
* * *
They sat after the pledge, Michael taking his seat and Mary coming around her desk to face the class. “You all have certainly noticed that we have a visitor today.”
Seated at the back of the room, in a chair meant for a human half his size, Dooley leaned forward on his knees and listened politely.
“This is Mr. Ashe—”
“Detective Ashe,” Dooley interjected, coming to his feet.
Attention volleyed between Miss Austin and the man who had interrupted her—without even raising his hand!
“Detective Ashe,” Mary corrected herself, “will be sitting in on our class today.” An obvious tension built in the room, a voiceless, anxious suspense. With a child it would have been called a test of wills. With this man...
...it was no different, Mary decided, one eyebrow curving high. She smiled at Dooley and said to the class, “And being that this is Tuesday, maybe
Ashe will join us in our regular two o’clock drill.”
Judy Devaux, sitting nearest Dooley in the back corner of Room 18, put a little hand over her mouth to hide a giggle.
“You will join us, Detective Ashe?” Mary pressed innocently.
For a second Dooley flashed back to his own days in school, and the teachers who knew how to both embarrass and encourage in the same breath. He’d hated them then but when his wise-ass, know-it-all days were behind him, he had come to value their crafty wisdom.
“Detective Ashe?” Mary tipped her head just enough.
Remember, you are in
“Of course,” Dooley said, easing back into the teeny chair. All the little faces were aimed at him. Most seeped glee into the collective mood. He could count those that did not on one hand.
The click and the hiss of room 18's door opening drew all attention its way, a synchronous turning of heads pivoting in unison, following the surprise late arrival into the room.
Elena Markworth sampled her classmates’ interest with the briefest of glances, barely a blink in their direction. The rest of the way to where Mary stood she looked at the floor ahead.
“I have a tardy slip from the office, Miss Austin,” Elena said, holding the paper out.
Mary took it. “Elena?”
The tone, pleasant, comforting, had a request built in. Elena looked up now.
“It’s good to have you back,” Mary said with a soft smile.
Elena nibbled at her lower lip and took her seat near the front of the class.
Dooley watched the little girl sit, put her books in her desk, and feign attentiveness by facing her teacher. This was the last one. Number six.
When he checked he saw that numbers one through five were glaring at her back.
* * *
At two o’clock, after math and science lessons that convinced Dooley he had forgotten more than he had learned, after a far too healthy cafeteria lunch that left him longing for the fried burritos and orange sodas of his youth, and after a forty-five minute stretch of something called sustained silent reading (which seemed just like plain old reading and convinced him that modern education loved to fancy simple things up with unnecessary terminology), yes at two o’clock sharp Dooley found himself third in line against one wall as part of some sort of team. Ten students stood behind him. The other half of the class waited eagerly against the opposite wall.
Mary wiped the two center blackboards clean and went to the first in line on Dooley’s side. “Your team’s name?”
“Mastodons!” Tommy Barrow said.
Next, to the other team’s number one. “And your team’s name?”
“Saber Tooth Tigers!” Bryce nearly shouted.
Mary went to the front of the room and set about chalking the team names at the top of the respective boards.
Number ten in the Saber Tooth Tigers, Michael nudged number nine. “Hey, Joey, your favorite drill.”
Joey looked back. “I hate Tuesdays.”
Across the sea of empty desks, Dooley tapped the shoulder to his front. “What’s going to happen?”
“Spelling drill,” Mark Woo answered. “Do you have a gun?”
“I have a gun,” Dooley replied absently.
“Can I see it?” Mark asked.
“No,” Dooley said, and crossed his arms as Mark turned away, dejected. Fine, you blow the first word, you sit down, and you get to watch the rest.
Five spaces back from Dooley, PJ looked behind. Jeff was there, two back, and Elena at the very end. “Psst.”
Jeff looked up and PJ mouthed, ‘
Not you. Elena.
“Psst,” PJ repeated, but Elena didn’t notice. Or didn’t want to notice.
“All right,” Mary said, taking a stack of three by five cards from her desk and standing just in front of it, facing the teams. She looked directly at Dooley and asked, “Is everyone ready?”
He nodded as the rest said, “Yes, Miss Austin.”
Mary turned toward the board. Tommy and Bryce took mild runners’ stances.
One card slid from the stack in Mary’s hand. She read it and enunciated clearly, “Brachiosaurus.”
In double quick step— not running...never running —the boys raced to the board, snatched up pieces of chalk from the dust tray, and printed at eye level as fast as their little hands could move.
The word gushed onto the board in tandem, clicking scratches.
, Dooley thought. He wouldn’t even have to try to misspell.
Bryce and Tommy finished within a split second of each other, but Tommy had ended his spelling with
, using an
should have been.
“Saber Tooth Tigers!” Mary said loudly. The next spellers took their mark, while Bryce retook his seat and Tommy went to the end of the Mastodon line.
Dooley watched this nervously and turned to the child behind him. “Our guy got it wrong. How come the guy who got it right gets to sit down?”
Regina Dayton-Wickes looked curiously at the policeman. “Don’t you get it?”
“Stegosaurus,” the word came, and Dooley was now at the head of the Mastodon line.
“Get what?” Dooley asked Regina.
She shook her head in utter shock that this adult couldn’t grasp the obvious. “The best spellers are the ones that least need the practice, Detective Ashe.”
Dooley turned toward the sound of that...word. It must have been a word. Or a wet sneeze. Mark Woo was sitting now, so the Mastodons had evened the score.
“Go!” Regina said.
“It’s your turn,” she told him. “Go!”
Dooley looked at the board. A little blonde girl, a blur of wrist and hand action, was well into the...word.
“Go!” the entire Mastodon line implored him.
A few quick shuffle steps put him at the board. He took the chalk in hand, put it to the green slate, and...looked back to Mary. “What was that word again?”
But before he could get a repetition, Tanya Byrd put her chalk down and stepped back from the board. Mary inspected the word and announced, “Saber Tooth Tigers!”
Tanya grinned haughtily, chin high, slapped the dust from her hands, and took her seat. Dooley set the chalk down and stepped away from the board.
“End of the line, Detective Ashe,” Mary said.
Dooley walked past and took his place, the least favorite Mastodon of the moment.
* * *
He had no idea that enough dinosaurs had existed to require this many utterly unpronounceable, unspellable names, and a merciful end to the exercise was in sight when Diplodocus culled the field to two Mastodons against one Saber Tooth Tiger.
Dooley was again at the plate, his sixth time. But only his first against this opponent.
Joey Travers had many skills. Leadership, penmanship. He could name the planets and point out the constellations on clear nights. But he was possibly the worst speller in room 18, something that diminished the respect he enjoyed from his peers not one bit, but which gnawed at him each time the requirement came to put letters into some proper order. A cold pit would open in his stomach, and from this some fiendishly unsympathetic beast would growl, loud enough to draw stares. It had done so seven times this afternoon.
He tightened his stomach muscles, trying to crush the beast, as he went to the board for the eighth.
Dooley rolled the chalk between his fingers and glanced to his opponent. A pair of tenacious little eyes met his and would not look away.
Scrappy little fellow, aren’t you, El Presidente...
Mary held the next card up and said, “Struthiomimus.”
Joey faced the barren slab of slate and began to write. He could hear the squeal of chalk striking the board to his left.
Sound it out. Struth...
A quick erasure with the heel of his hand. U-T-H
Another rapid wash of skin on dusty slate. M-I-M
He put the last two letters to the word, U-S.
He dropped the chalk in the tray and turned toward Dooley.
Mary checked Joey’s spelling while Dooley continued to struggle. “Saber Tooth Tigers!”
Half of the students scattered about their desks erupted into a cheer, high and low fives passing from seat to seat.
“Awright, Joey!” Gareth Ellis exclaimed from the front row.
Dooley put his chalk down and faced his opponent. “You’re quick.”
The urge to say something was intense, a surge that Joey choked off in his chest, where it thudded in a deep, bass repetition. A cry pounding to be freed. A cry that was offspring to the thoughts careening about his head.
You don’t understand what it was like. What he was like. You can’t. You won’t.