Authors: Ryne Douglas Pearson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers, #Suspense & Thrillers
I don’t remember calling.
“With the weather changing so quick I must have caught a bug. A virus or something.”
I don’t remember being sick.
I don’t remember today.
“I’m just not feeling well,” Mary said, nodding to herself and letting her hands come up to the keys. Her fingers began to touch them. Notes rose from strings hidden deep within.
Michael Prentiss was glad when this day ended.
It had only been the normal length, but with the sub they had it seemed twice as long. The stone-faced old woman had brought her own worksheets for the class to complete, and each time someone finished one she just gave them another. Stupid busy work that did nothing but keep them from doing their regular assignments. Joey had even said something about that at the beginning of the day, telling the old hag that they all knew what to do and they could just, well, do it. And what had come from that? The old bat gave Joey a hundred sentences to write—
I will work quietly and not disturb the rest of the class
—and told everyone to keep their pencils moving and their mouths shut. All while she sat at Miss Austin’s desk and paged through one magazine after another.
Michael had figured she was just going to do that all day, but as the day wore on he started to notice something whenever he’d glance up from one of the worksheets. He’d see her not looking at the magazine at all. Sure, her fingers were flipping slowly through the slick pages, but her eyes were on them. Not on everyone. Just them. Sometimes watching PJ. Sometimes Bryce, or Joey, or Jeff. Sometimes Elena. And sometimes him.
Once their eyes had even met, and Michael thought it really strange that the old, rigid crone was the one to look away first.
When three o’clock came he was gone, outta there. PJ had hollered at him to wait, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to talk to her, or to anyone, and he didn’t want to explain why to any of his friends because he really didn’t know why. There was simply an overpowering desire to be alone. Away from them for a while. Just a little while.
He sprinted through the main gate and didn’t stop running until he was home.
His mother had a glass of soda waiting for him when came through the back door. He took it to his room and laid out his sports cards for inspection.
Michael fiddled with them until his father came home.
The door to his room opened about seven. His father came in ahead of the aroma of chili cooking in the crock pot.
“Hey, you got the whole collection out,” Jack Prentiss commented. He stood next to the bed and admired the rows of cards, football players striking blocking poses for the camera, pitchers in a wind up, batters cocked and ready to swing. He pointed to one running back and said, “That guy was grease with legs. No one could bring him down.”
Michael nodded and adjusted the spacing between the receivers. They were on the right, near the edge of the bed, right next to offensive linemen.
“Hey, Mikey,” Jack Prentiss began.
It was obviously a beginning, Michael knew. The kind of start to something like a lecture, or an awkward conversation, like when his dad had told him about the birds and bees, and had had trouble saying the word ‘vagina’.
“The cops came by the shop today.”
“They did, huh?”
“Yeah.” Jack Prentiss rubbed his hands on his work pants and then laced them behind his head. They were busy hands, used to doing something. “I guess that one cop that was bugging you guys got run off the road or something, and they got some cockeyed idea that his brakes were fooled with. You know, blame you guys for everything.” He chuckled nervously as his son nodded and looked back to his collection. “It was probably that Edmond kid. The brother of the dead one.”
Michael bit his lower lip and straightened George Blanda.
“Anyway, they were asking if I have any tools missing. I told them they were nuts. Right?”
“Yeah,” Michael agreed passively.
“Yeah.” Jack Prentiss put his hands in his pockets and chuckled nervously. “Yeah. Okay. I just, uh, wanted to let you know about it. I didn’t want you to think there was, uh, anything, you know...wrong”
One hand came out and scratched at his cheek, then Jack Prentiss left his son to his collection. In the hallway he leaned against the closed door.
He had been relieved when nothing turned up missing at the shop, but when he came home he checked his personal tools just to be sure. They were all there. All of them.
The three-eighths wrench was there, but not where he had left it after working on the snow blower the weekend before. It could have been just his memory. That’s what he had thought.
Until he remembered the shop manual he had reluctantly looked through before coming home. The section on the brake system for a ‘95 Blazer.
The nuts on the caliper end were three-eighths.
* * *
She told him to sit on the bed and then explained what she had found on the sweatshirt’s sleeve.
“Grease?” Keith Hool asked, not doubting what his wife was telling him, the question spawned of a parent’s deepest fear.
Caroline Hool nodded solemnly. She knew the fear better, and needed to share the rest with her husband. She went to her dresser and opened the lingerie drawer, lifting the soft folds of her red teddy and bringing out the folded pages.
Caroline turned toward him, cupping the pages in her palms much like she had when holding them over the waste basket. Cradling them like a wounded dove. She took them to her husband and said, “These are the rough pages of a story Bryce was writing.” He eyed the folded stack and took them, flattening the pages on his lap. “I pick up the hand written versions all the time from around the computer. And I read them. He’s so shy about letting us read anything that sometimes I feel that these scraps are all I can get from him.”
Keith started skimming the first page.
“It’s a space story,” Caroline began to explain, and her husband looked up. “Like a good guy, bad guy thing. Bryce’s hero is a character named Commander Zaxar, and the villain is the Death Knight.” She bent forward and removed several of the pages from her husband’s lap, setting them on the bed. As she stood she pointed at what was left. Her voice started to crack as she said, “Right there, though, I’m not sure if it’s just a story anymore. I’m not sure it’s make-believe.”
Keith Hool’s eyes held his wife for a moment, then stuttered to the sheets of paper on his lap.
There was a tractor beam to shut off, but the Commander had something else to do first. He raised his weapon high over his head and laughed. Then
I brought the bat down on Guy’s head. It split it open and his brains spilled out. Then I hit Guy again and again and I kicked him and I told him to get up and I kicked him in the nuts and hit him on the head and spit on him and I thought I might just drop my pants and take a shit on him but first I would pry open his mouth so he would have to eat my shit and
Keith Hool looked up at his wife, stunned, his mouth half open.
“The next page is where he wrote it over,” Caroline said. She drew her arms across her stomach as a sad, teary little girl mask drained over her face. “Oh, God, Keith. Do you think he did it?”
Bryce’s father answered neither in the negative, or in the positive. He looked away, the slice of darkness that had shown through his parted lips gone now as his mouth worked shut, the tip of his pink tongue sliding into view once while he thought. While he absorbed this and tried to make heads or tails of what his son had done, or wanted to do, or known about, or...what?
Caroline twisted where she stood, hugging herself with one arm now. The back of her free hand wiped the tears now staining her cheeks. But she was not just a weepy woman giving in to her own quiet hysterics. She was a mother. A mother who was thinking like her husband. “We need to get a lawyer.”
Keith reached slowly up and loosened his tie. “No.”
She turned hard toward him. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
He looked to her, his face sad and shaking. “I mean no. We didn’t raise him that way. We taught him from the day he came to us that you don’t hide from responsibility.”
“Keith!” Caroline caught her rising voice and listened in silence for a moment. There was no sound of approaching feet outside their closed bedroom door. The girls must still be bellied up to the coffee table with their coloring books, and Bryce—
Oh, God, Bryce...
—would be at the computer. Writing a new story. “Keith,” she said again, a middling, anguished tone to her voice now, “this is
we are talking about. Not stealing candy from the store. A
“Do you think I don’t know that?” He glanced briefly at the door himself. “I had two policemen come to the office today and ask in a roundabout way if my son might have fixed the brakes on that detective’s car. You know as well as I that Bryce doesn’t know how to do that kind of thing.”
“But the grease...”
“So maybe he was there,” Keith Hool said, the admission, simply speaking the possibility stopping the exchange cold for a moment. “Maybe he was there when Guy was killed.” He lifted the pages, shaking them. “Maybe this is some twisted fantasy he had about it.”
“Keith, he’s our son.”
“I know exactly what he is. And as much as I believe he couldn’t have done anything to that detective’s car, I also know that he couldn’t kill anyone. Anyone. No matter how rotten.” He put all the pages aside. “Do you believe he could? Do you believe our son is a killer?”
“Of course not.”
“Then suddenly having him hide behind some lawyer is sure going to make it look like he is.”
Caroline turned away from her husband and stared at herself in the mirror rising from the back of the dresser. Quickly her gaze moved to the family snapshots edged between the wood frame and the reflective glass. Tucked lovingly there so she could see her husband and her children whenever she saw herself.
I am part of something bigger
, she thought, knowing for her it applied to family.
For her son did it mean something completely different?
“What are we going to do, Keith?” she asked her husband’s reflection, the stolen image of him sitting at the foot of their bed, staring at the floor.
“We’re going to do what’s right,” he said.
It worked like this.
From where he sat, Jeff had the best vantage point to see the suggestion box, so he would be the one to keep an eye out for anyone ‘making a deposit’. Jeff had called it that when the five of them discussed the details of finding who was screwing with them; he liked the gangster-like sound of it. He would make a note of anyone who made a deposit, or even anyone who went near the converted shoebox near the back of the room. And, if there came a time when he had to take his eyes off the box, say to go to the bathroom or something, he would clear his throat twice and that would be the signal for the next closest person, PJ, to take up the task.
Actually, Elena was the next closest, but none of them felt comfortable with telling her about what they were doing because that would mean telling her about the notes, and that might be enough to freak her out worse than she was on the day this whole thing started. Jeff, though, had suggested the possibility that Elena might be putting the notes in there herself, but when PJ angrily demanded that he explain
‘Why in the hell would she do that, Bernstein? Huh? Tell me?’
he couldn’t think of a good reason. And even if he had he wouldn’t have offered it; he plainly saw PJ’s hands making hard fists at her side.
So now they sat in class, Friday morning dwindling away, first recess behind them and lunch just ahead. Jeff had once had to pass the torch to PJ— to get a corrected paper from Miss Austin —but then he was back, nodding once to PJ to let her know that he was again on the job. And it was right then, looking back from PJ to the box, that he saw it. Saw someone go right up to the box and drop a folded slip of paper in. Their first suspect.
Jeff wrote the name inside one of his folders and kept on watching. When the lunch bell rang thirty minutes later, as everyone was starting out, he passed by the box and removed what had been left inside.
* * *
They were at their usual place, one of the covered picnic benches just outside the cafeteria, lunch bags open and deals being made. Michael was in the middle of trading Joey a bag of Doritos for a Twinkie when Jeff came up and tossed a folded slip of paper on the table.
They all stared hard at it, then at Jeff.
“Open it up,” Jeff said to them, and Joey did.
Missed me, missed me, now you’ve got to kiss me.
“Damn,” Joey said, and gave the note to PJ. She read it and passed it on. It made the rounds, ending with Bryce. Jeff took it from him and tucked it in his sling.
“It sounds like something a girl would write,” Michael observed. He felt PJ’s hot stare grab at him. “What?”
“Don’t even think it,” PJ suggested forcefully, her face twisting into something they remembered from the last school year. From the old PJ. Eyes compressed to dark slits, her mouth drawn to one central point, making it something between a pout and a scowl. Her cheeks burned the color of a setting summer sun. “I know what you’re thinking. You and Jeff both.”
Bryce looked back over his shoulder. Three tables away Elena was sitting alone in a crowd, picking small pieces of her sandwich with slow, almost mechanical bites.
“Well she wouldn’t write it,” PJ practically snarled. “She
Jeff was the first one to respond, and he did so with a nod. “I know she didn’t. Only one person went to the box this morning and I saw who it was.” PJ’s face softened some, just a bitter wariness remaining. The rest were looking at Jeff now, too, and from his pocket he pulled a second note. “This was in with the other one.”
“But you said only one person went to the box,” Bryce said.