Authors: Ryne Douglas Pearson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers, #Suspense & Thrillers
“Joey?” Jeff said, nearly pleading. He could almost feel the rapid fire clang of the bell threatening. They all could.
“You’re going to stick to the story,” Joey told Elena, confidence and question both in the statement. He was surprised and relieved when her tear-stained face concurred with a nod against PJ’s chest. “I knew you would.”
PJ’s hand moved to Elena’s head and stroked her shiny brown hair. “He’s not going to hurt you anymore.”
“Or anyone,” Jeff added. Beneath the cast his skin tingled in a pesky itch, all courtesy of their very own bully.
, Joey thought to himself, agreeing as one who knew what sort of hurt Guy Edmond could dish out. Knowing as only he could know. As only he would know.
‘All for one.’
Miss Austin’s favorite saying rang suddenly in Joey’s head for the second time in twenty minutes, earlier as a spark and now as a gentle shove to remind him that most of what had to be done still lay ahead.
‘All for one.’
He looked to Jeff, then Michael, then Bryce, then to PJ, who clutched Elena tight like a favorite doll in danger of being lost. “We can do this.”
Jeff glanced at each of his friends. “He’s right. We can.”
“We’re just kids,” Joey reminded them. “They can’t do the same things to us that they could do to a grown-up. They can’t
us say anything. We just stick to the story and forget about everything else.”
An odd little smile curled onto Jeff’s face. Meanness spiced the expression as he nodded and parroted, “We’re just kids. Who doesn’t believe a kid?”
“All right.” Joey looked at the bat in his hands. It was time. “Bryce? You know what to do?”
The class treasurer nodded and nervously checked his watch. “I’ve gotta go now if I’m gonna beat the bell.”
“Go do it,” Joey said, and let the bat fall from his hands as Bryce sprinted off toward the office. The fat end
off the asphalt, then the handle, the whole bat ‘walking’ toward the body, settling into a roll after a second and coming to rest against Guy Edmond’s back. A wet, gurgling hiss escaped his lips and was lost with the breeze rustling fast through the ivy.
* * *
Veta Nelson, Windhaven’s school secretary, stood board-straight at the reception counter in the main office, nimble fingers alphabetizing the morning’s absence slips the same as they had every day during first recess for almost nineteen years.
But somewhere in the T’s her fingers froze and her eyes came up, looking over bifocals that might have seemed pleasantly grandmotherly if not for the unmistakable fact that Veta Nelson was none too pleased by what she was hearing echo in from the main hallway. Feet, little feet, tapping on old tile. Tapping far too fast. Far, far too fast. Running.
Running her way. A grin simmered on Veta’s aged mouth as she came around the counter and stepped into the hallway just as the inexcusably fast clomping of loosely tied sneakers began to slow for a turn. She put her hand out, ready to grab a fistful of shirt as the offender tried to speed by toward the stairs, but the offender instead ran straight into her as he tried to steer into the office.
“Wait one minute, young man,” Veta Nelson said, pulling the small head away from her midriff and holding it in both hands to clearly identify the... “
? Bryce Hool?”
“Gu... Gu...” A gasping stammer was all Bryce could manage, and it was uncomfortably real. He’d run faster than he could ever remember running. His side stung. His chest ached. And, worst of all, Mrs. Nelson had a funny look on her face, like she already didn’t believe him...and he hadn’t even told a lie. He wondered if he’d have to.
Veta bent a bit to eye the unlikely scofflaw severely. This nice young man? Running away with first prize in spelling a bee, yes. But
in the halls? Disregarding school rule number 1? “Bryce Hool, just what do you—”
“Guy’s hurt,” Bryce interrupted, forcing the words out between gulps of air. His glasses were askew from the collision.
“Guy... Guy Edmond,” Bryce panted.
“Hurt?” There was one and only one excuse for running in the halls, Veta knew. One had better be running for help. “Hurt how?”
Bryce fixed his glasses, sucked a breath of air, and said, “He’s hurt bad. His head’s bleeding.” With that Veta straightened so that Bryce now saw her eyes through the half lenses that made them look small, like dollops of chocolate on vanilla cookies. “And he’s not moving, Mrs. Nelson.”
“Where is he?” Veta asked sharply.
“Outside our room. By the side fence.”
Veta loosed her grip on Bryce and turned back toward the office. The first person she saw was that day’s parent volunteer. “Judy! Get the nurse! Now! Tell her to bring her bag!”
Judy, her own child a kindergartner, hesitated momentarily then sprang from a desk covered with files and disappeared into an adjoining room. Less than a minute later a painfully thin woman followed her into the office and around the counter to where Veta stood with Bryce.
“What’s the ruckus?” the school nurse, Nan Jakowitz, asked.
“Follow him,” Veta said, pointing to Bryce. “One of his classmates is bleeding.”
“I think he’s dead,” Bryce told her.
“I’m sure he’s not dead,” the nurse assured him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Blood is scary. It always looks worse than it is. Now show me where he is.”
“I’ll get their teacher. Go, go,” Veta urged both adult and child, returning to the office as they rushed off, fast feet again sounding in the hall. Through the office she moved quickly, into the teacher’s lounge, where she had seen Bryce and Guy’s teacher go when first recess began. But the room and its sagging chairs were now empty. She was about to turn and leave when the muffled hiss of water running drew her eyes to the ladies’ room door just to her left. “Mary? Are you in there?”
“Yes. I’ll be out in a—”
Veta stepped close and touched the cold wood of the door. “Mary, one of your children is hurt.” First silence, then a rush of air being drawn in. A steadying breath, Veta could tell without having to see. And then the privacy latch clicking an instant before the door jerked inward.
Mary Austin stood with her hand gripping the doorknob, young eyes wide, her face a barren mask of shock. “What do you mean?”
“Hurt, Mary,” Veta said, putting a hand on the young teacher’s arm. So young, yet so talented. Only three years teaching and already she had the wisdom of many of the hair-in-a-bun veterans Veta had seen come and go during her tenure. The Mary Austins, those possessing the true gift of teaching, were the rarest of the rare, and each held a special place in the secretary’s heart. This one more so than others, because Mary Austin had done more than teach. Veta had seen her work miracles. “Come on. The nurse is on her way there now. Come on.”
Mary watched Veta Nelson take a few steps before she, too, began to move. Just into the hall the bell ending recess sounded, a staccato clanging that followed Veta and Mary as they ran out of the main building and across the playground toward the sixth grade bungalows.
* * *
Nan Jakowitz passed Bryce as they neared a crush of students swarming outside Room 18, pushing through the chest high mass until she broke into the center and stood facing a distinctly separate group of five children gathered in a tight arc. They were staring at her feet, and when she looked down she saw the crimson sheen formed around her tan flats and understood why.
,” Nurse Jakowitz said in rising tone, giving her exclamation of horror a tinge of religious declaration. Her feet stepped gingerly out of the blood covering the ground to Guy Edmond’s front, and moved to a spot near his back where she knelt and put two fingers to his neck.
She counted silently,
One... Two... Three...
And nothing. Her eyes flitted from Guy’s neck to the ground, and she saw the bat, its fat end splashed grotesquely red.
Four... Five... Six...
Her eyes came up from the bat and fell upon the arc of children fixed close to the body. Bryce had joined them. They were six in number now, and they looked at her with eyes that seemed collective, individuality gone from their expressions. The littlest girl, held close by a bigger girl in one protective arm, sniffled, but her gaze never broke.
“What happened?” Nan asked, directing her question to Bryce.
“We found him,” Joey answered for the class treasurer. For them all.
“Found him?” Nan pressed.
Five of the six nodded. Elena simply bore reddened, gaunt eyes at the nurse.
The breeze swirled through the fence and over the crowd, reminding all of the season. It might have chilled Nan Jakowitz, but a prickly rise of goose bumps had already done so.
She looked again to the body, counting,
Seven... Eight... Nine...
Nothing. Not a hint of a pulse. Nan Jakowitz drew her hand away from the neck and swallowed hard. Her eyes played over the wet red asphalt.
There’s too much blood
, she thought immediately.
Not enough left in his body for CPR to do any good. He’s really dead
. She looked up at the six again, at Bryce in particular as someone pushed through the outer crowd.
“Is he going to be okay?” Bryce asked.
Nan’s head cocked at the almost vacant concern in his voice. The quizzical expression still showed when Veta Nelson and Mary Austin made it through the students and gawked first at the little body, then at the blood, then at the nurse.
“How bad?” Veta asked, drawing deep for composure. Mary stepped just past her, eyes glued on Guy Edmond.
Nan shifted her attention to Veta and said, after a short pause, “He’s dead.”
Five of the six stole sideways, leaden glances at one and other. Elena shuddered upon the nurse’s pronouncement, then quickly stilled. One girl in the crowd stumbled back toward the fence and covered her mouth with clenched fists, her blonde hair tossed across her face by the wind. Dozens of youthful mouths repeated the news in hushed tones.
Dead? He’s dead. Guy’s dead. Dead?
“Dead?” Veta asked, eyes narrow, as if she’d just been told something incomprehensible. An impossibility.
Nan nodded and rose from her crouch.
“Oh dear God,” Veta said, putting a single, trembling hand to her mouth and reaching for Mary’s arm with the other. It found only space. Mary was backing away, inching steps that cleaved an opening in the crowd. “Mary?”
How this must hurt...
The six looked to their teacher, and she now to them, forcing her eyes from the crushed little head spilling life onto the blacktop.
“Mary?” Veta repeated.
And as quickly as it had begun, Mary Austin’s retreat ceased, but not because of words. Her eyes had moved from Joey, to Bryce, to Michael, to P.J, to Elena, and then to Jeff. When it settled upon him, all energy drained from her, pouring down some invisible channel ripped through her core, cascading from her chest, washing hot through her stomach, and leaving through legs drawn hollow and made papery. For an instant she tried to tell herself what she had seen was just a twitch. A nervous tick. Expected. Normal, considering.
But it wasn’t. As clear as the horror that was strewn between them, she knew it was no twitch, no involuntary response. It was what it was. And what it was was a wink.
Jeff had given her a slow, purposeful wink, one that existed between only them.
She shook her head as her knees went weak, legs turning soft, the vast gray sky above becoming a great fuzzy spiral that followed her as she twisted and twisted downward into a harsh, icy blackness.
It was Sunday, and it had begun to rain.
Not in pearly drops that clicked when they hit one’s coat or umbrella, but slowly, almost silently, a cold, wet blur descending.
Dooley Ashe turned his collar up and hunched his shoulders against the elements, his hands burrowed deep in the lined pockets of his parka, and looked back through the weather as the last visitors gate closed behind. Anchor Bay State Prison was already lost somewhere in the settling haze.
Dooley turned sharply toward the voice.
“Are you Dooley Ashe? Detective Dooley Ashe?”
The stranger wore a gray overcoat and held an umbrella in a black-gloved hand, and stood at the steps leading down to the visitor’s lot with a casually friendly smile uneven on his face.
“Who are you?” Dooley asked. He was not smiling.
Another black-gloved hand appeared from a pocket and flipped open an ID wallet. A gold badge struggled to shine in the flat light. “My name’s Joel Bauer. I’m a detective with the Bartlett Police Department.”
“Bartlett,” Dooley said, mostly to himself, mental circuit breakers tripping. He walked past the detective toward his car. Footsteps behind told him he was not rid of the stranger.
“It’s a few hours east of here,” Joel offered.
“I know where it is.”
“You haven’t returned my calls,” Joel said. When they cleared the steps and were in the lot he sped up and walked next to Dooley, eyeing him with eager glances. “I’ve left like twenty messages. Your machine must be busting by now.”
Enough of the misty rain had accumulated on Dooley’s outback hat that full drops now fell from its wide brim with each jarring step. He looked straight ahead, through the secondary downpour, and told himself to say nothing. Told himself to just walk, give the stranger a polite nod once he reached his car, and drive away. End of interlude, he could hope.
End of nothing, he feared.
“How’d you know I’d be here?” Dooley asked, his eyes still forward. His step had slowed.
“I sat across from your house for ten hours. A man can hold only so much coffee before he gives up. So, I went to your supervisor. He told me you’d be here today.”
Dooley stopped at the rear of a rusting Dodge Dart and looked to his unwanted company. “I don’t have a supervisor anymore, buddy. Detective whoever-you-are.”