Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“Okay, that’s weird, but I’m learning to expect nothing less from you,” Jody said.
“If I don’t come back in twenty minutes, you should probably check on me. He may be trying to kill me.”
Jody laughed. Lacy hoped if she didn’t come back, then Jody would realize she had been serious. Had Tony been following her the whole reunion? If so, why? Lacy descended the stairs at a meandering pace. She headed casually in the direction of the snack stand before abruptly spinning on her heel and dodging under the bleachers. Tony saw her and started to run, but he was no athlete, either. She overtook him by hopping on his back. He carried her a few paces, but when he couldn’t shake her free, he gave up.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What are you doing? You’ve been following me.”
“No, I haven’t,” he said.
“Yes, you have,” she said. “This is the second time you’ve watched me under the bleachers, and I know you were in the fitness room. Did you turn out the lights to scare me?”
“What? No way.”
“Then why did you follow me?”
“I can’t talk to you when you’re on my back like a tree monkey,” he said. He shook her free, and this time she let him. “Let’s sit.”
They sat in the gravel and dirt beneath the bleachers. “What did Summer do to you?” she asked.
He blinked at her in confusion. Lacy decided to start with the most pressing question first. Had he killed Summer?
“She didn’t do anything to me,” Tony said.
“I find that hard to believe. Everyone from our class has a Summer story, including me. Someone told me yours is epic. I would really like to know what it is.”
“There was nothing. In fact, she did me a solid once.”
“She did you a solid?”
“A favor,” he clarified.
“What was it?”
“I had a crazy crush on this girl. She locked us in the band room together for hours.”
“But I was locked in the band room with you for hours. Who else did she lock you in with?”
“No one,” he said.
“Oh.” Her mouth puckered in surprise. “You had a crush? On me? In high school?” She peered closer at him. Was he legally blind, or was he as crazy as everyone said he was?
“What can I say? I had a thing for redheads. You were sweet, and you weren’t into all the drama like other girls. You did your own thing. Most of the time your head was in the clouds. I thought of you as the female me.”
“And is that why you’ve been following me around now?” she said.
“No. I have a serious girlfriend. I think I’m going to marry her. I’ve been following you around because I like to observe people. It’s my thing. You’re interesting, and you make me laugh. Also, I’m pretty intrigued by what you’re doing in the town. I’ve been looking for an investment opportunity, and I heard the hotel is for sale.”
“You want to buy the Heritage Inn?”
“Yes. I sneaked my property manager in, and he assured me it’s a good investment. I’ll have my people call your people. We’ll talk terms.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I write apps.”
“Games, medical devices, maps. Five of the twelve top selling apps last year were mine.”
“Wow, my brain is on overload from all the surprising information. Summer really did something nice for you?”
“We used to work out together. She was a fitness freak. She hit on me once, if you can believe it.”
“No offense, but from what I hear she hit on everything with a Y chromosome.”
“I turned her down. Her hair was blond.” He glanced at Lacy’s hair with fond affection.
“I’m not going to wake up bald one morning to find you standing over me with a razor and a creepy grin, am I?”
“Everyone needs a hobby,” he said.
Lacy’s brain was on overload. She cast about for something to say. “Would you believe I never once made it below the bleachers in high school and this is my second trip today?”
“Yes, I would,” he said, and the smile he gave her let her know he had been watching the encounter with Jason. “You and Jason Cantor. Whoa. I guess it’s true what they say about the quiet ones; we’re the ones you have to look out for. By the way, we’re going to have to do something about the supply closet at the Heritage. It’s barely big enough for three people.”
“You were not in there with us,” she said.
“Wasn’t I?” he asked. He wagged his eyebrows and Lacy found she could no longer maintain eye contact.
“Lacy?” Jody hovered at the edge of the bleachers, sounding uncertain. “It’s almost halftime and we’re lining up.”
“Coming,” Lacy called. She was delighted to have a reason to escape. “I’ll see you, Tony.”
“I’ll probably see you first,” he said. He sounded like he was joking, but who could tell?
“What was that about?” Jody asked.
“Jody, did you ever get the feeling that the people from our town aren’t quite normal?”
“Only every time I look in the mirror,” Jody said.
Lacy laughed so hard that Chester Campbell shushed her and threatened to make her sit out of the halftime show for her disruptive behavior.
“Why are there cinnamon buns on your head?”
“They’re not cinnamon buns; they’re just buns,” Lacy said.
“The question ‘why’ remains,” Michael said. He had agreed to meet her at the hotel after the game. For his troubles, she had arranged for him to stay a couple of nights, free of charge, and to have whatever food he wanted delivered to his room.
“This is how she wore her hair.”
“Do I even want to know?” he asked.
“Tell me about my target.”
“Her name is Jody…”
“Not her—the ex. What’s he like? What’s he into?”
“He’s the one who arranged this,” she gestured to herself.
“So he has a sense of humor. That’s good. I can work with that.”
“No, he’s into it for real.”
“Oh, one of those,” Michael said. “Okay, I’m getting the picture. Keep talking.”
She told him about Carter, his hobbies, his interests, and his history with Jody.
“Got it,” he said as they entered the ballroom. The other Jedis were already assembled and paused to look at the newcomers.
“This is Michael,” Lacy said.
Carter scowled. “Outsiders aren’t allowed at council meetings.”
“I’m here at the princess’s invitation,” Michael said. “Are we ignoring our commitment to honor Alderaan now?”
Carter waved a weary hand toward the chairs and they sat. “Is he for me?” Jody whispered. Lacy wondered why she hadn’t been chosen as Leia. Instead, she was dressed in a plain robe like the other Jedis. In addition to the berobed Jedis, Lacy recognized Luke, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and even Yoda, who was so tiny he was either being played by a child or Chester Campbell.
“Michael, Jody, Jody, Michael,” Lacy whispered.
“My lady,” Michael said, kissing the back of Jody’s hand. Either Jody was an excellent actress, or she was already being taken in by Michael’s over-the-top attempt to charm her.
“Can we get started?” Carter snapped. “We’re already running behind.”
Lacy quickly pulled out the script he had given her. She, more than anyone else, wanted the “council meeting” to be over before their class reunion started. She hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with Jason about her plans. Luckily for her, he and the other football alumni were celebrating their victory over the high school players.
“Probably with a whole lot of ice packs and pain relievers,” he had whispered as they parted ways on the field. Lacy figured if the Jedis finished their play quickly, she could change and be back in time for the reunion, and Jason would be none the wiser about her role in the charade. She had already sworn Tosh and Michael to secrecy.
As she scanned the room, Lacy realized she was the only one with a script. The others were ad libbing because they knew the characters so well. Carter had given her a list of phrases and talking points for whenever anyone addressed her directly. She had hoped they would leave her out of it and pretend she was bun-wearing eye candy, but no such luck. They addressed her often, asking her opinion about republic business. She glanced helplessly and often at her list of talking points. “The time for being diplomatic is over,” was her most-used phrase. Beside her, Michael sat smiling like a kid at the circus. Once when Jody and Carter got in a heated discussion over the fate of the rebel alliance, he leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She repeated it to Carter and won the argument. Carter didn’t like that at all, Lacy could tell, but he still did nothing to intervene.
The mood of the room began to shift. Lacy checked her watch. Was it almost over? It had to be—the reunion was starting in a half an hour. Someone in the room mentioned Vader, and that was when Lacy realized who was missing. Where was Tosh?
As if in answer to her question, the door burst open and he entered, dressed head to toe in the creepy black robe with plastic mask. Unlike the other cheap costumes in the room, Tosh’s outfit had probably cost a fortune. It was so authentic that she felt like James Earl Jones was in the room with them when he spoke. He was followed by a handful of plastic white storm troopers, and the room flew into a whirl of activity. Light sabers came out. Plastic hit plastic with an unsatisfying “clack.” Someone switched on an iPod, and the
theme began to play.
For a while, Lacy sat still and watched, torn between boredom and embarrassment. They were grown men and women. Should they be swishing glowing plastic and imitating saber noises? Then Michael tossed a saber in her direction.
“Why are you sitting there? Save the alliance,” he called.
“You want me to use this?” she said, glancing down at the cheap, plastic sword.
“Get the princess,” Tosh ordered almost at the same moment. Two storm troopers advanced on her, and the play ceased to feel pretend. All she knew was that two people were coming to take her, and she couldn’t let them. She thwacked them with her sword and ran away. They gave chase and the event became a free-for-all. Soon Lacy was gone, and there was only Leia, daughter of Vader, leader of rebel alliance, and warrior. She was sweaty and exhausted from alternately battling storm troopers and trying to escape them. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so much fun or laughed so much, and then it was over. In all the fun and melee, they lost track of time. The music switched off and the Jedis began to come back to the real world. They were still surrounded by hostiles, only now instead of storm troopers, they were surrounded by their classmates.
They faced off, the robe-wearing, saber-rattling band kids, and the too-pretty, too-perfect popular group. Kimber entered. She was class president and de facto leader of the reunion, and she didn’t look pleased with her role. She stopped short, scanned the crowd, and very obviously sided with the band group. Jason was next. He stopped short as soon as he entered, scanning. Lacy wasn’t sure if he was checking for trouble or looking for her. She didn’t want him to find either. She eased up her hood, and faded into the background.
With the arrival of Kimber, the reunion had an official start. She thanked everyone for coming and asked for input on their ten-year reunion, the official event that would arrive in two years.
“I have input,” Reed said. “I don’t think these freaks should be invited.” He waved to indicate Lacy and her fellow Jedis.
“Whoa,” Kimber said, putting up her hands. “Everyone is invited to the reunion.”
“One of them killed Summer and attacked Brady,” Reed said. “Would we even be safe?”
The door opened again and Riley eased in. She sidled up to Tosh who hadn’t yet noticed her arrival.
“Hold on,” Jason said. “There is no proof that anyone in this room killed Summer or attacked Brady. If there had been, I would already have arrested that person.”
“Oh, come on, Jason,” Hillary cajoled. “Why are you taking their side? Everyone knows it was Tony Rico.”
In the far corner, a potted palm twitched and Lacy caught sight of Tony’s eye peeking out.
“No, Hillary, everyone does not know that,” Jason said. “There is no proof.”
“He’s a freak. What more proof do you need?” Hillary said.
“I need actual proof.” His eyes scanned the room again, a little desperate now. Was he hoping for moral support? Lacy couldn’t deny him that. She eased off her hood and took a step forward. He did a double take and tilted his head, studying her.
“What about Kimber?” Reed said. “Everyone knows you questioned her.”
“I questioned her, yes,” Jason said, tearing his eyes away from Lacy with effort. “And you’ll notice I didn’t arrest her.”
“What did she say? Does she have an alibi?”
“None of your business,” Jason said.
“It is our business!” Jill yelled. “Summer and Brady were our friends, they’re part of our group. Is one of us going to be next? Maybe it’ll be you.”
“It wasn’t one of us,” Carter said. The Jedis gathered behind him in a V-formation, their weapons at the ready.
The two sides began bickering back and forth. Jason ground his palm into his eye socket. “Shut up!” he roared after a screaming match that resulted in a saber being hurled across the divide. “Everybody take a breath and calm down. There is something I need to say.” Everyone did as he commanded, staring at him with rapt attention. Lacy did the same. Was he going to announce the killer?
“High school is over,” he said after a dramatic pause. “It doesn’t matter who was a cheerleader, who played football, or who was in the band. It doesn’t matter who was homecoming queen or prom king. It doesn’t matter who we were. All that matters is who we are right now. We’re from the same place. We grew up together. Most of us have known each other all of our lives. Isn’t that enough of a reason to stick together? We are twenty six years old. We’re adults who are capable of being better than this. I’ve spent the last few days rehashing all the misery of adolescence, and I’m done. I want to leave this place and have a quiet evening with my girlfriend.”