Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“You have a girlfriend?” Jillian said.
“Yes, I do.” He jutted a finger at Lacy. “It’s…Princess Leia? Lacy, why are you dressed like…you know what? I’m going to stop asking questions. Just come over here.”
Lacy tossed aside her saber and went forward, feeling as if everyone was watching her, which they were. As soon as she was within range, Jason put his arm around her and pulled her close against his side. “If this were still high school, Lacy and I wouldn’t be dating, and I would have missed out on the best thing that’s ever happened to me. None of the stuff from back then matters now. Think about it.”
No one had time to think about it because someone else burst into the room as soon as he finished speaking.
“Robert!” Lacy and Riley exclaimed together.
“Ah, geez, what now?” Jason said.
“What are you doing here?” Riley said.
“You stopped taking my calls. I had to see you. Riley, come home. We can work this out,” Robert said. He strode forward and clasped her hand in both of his.
She shook him off and plucked it free. “No. I told you I’m married.”
“It was a mistake that can be easily undone,” Robert said.
“No, it can’t.”
“Yes, it can. You were under duress. You could probably get an annulment.”
“I don’t want an annulment. I’m pregnant,” Riley said.
“Are you sure it’s his?” Robert asked, and then he was lying on the floor. It happened so quickly, no one saw Tosh’s fist strike.
“Don’t ever, ever talk to my wife that way again,” Tosh said as he towered over him, his fists still clenched angrily at his side.
“My nose,” Robert wailed. He grabbed for it and blood began to spurt. “I think you broke my nose.” He scrambled up and away from Tosh and caught sight of Jason. “You’re a cop, arrest him for assault. I want to press charges.”
“What? What happened?” Jason said. “Sorry, I wasn’t looking. Did anyone see anything?”
“No, nothing, not a thing,” everyone began to chorus.
“Tripped, he did,” Yoda added.
“It seems no one saw what happened,” Jason said. “I could arrest him based on your word, but he’s a respected pastor and you’re a weasel-faced, cheating, lint-licker of a liar.”
Robert pinched his nose and turned his attention on Lacy. “How about you, Lacy? Have you changed your mind about us? You wanna…”
That was as far as he got before Jason advanced. “That’s it. Lacy, hold my badge…” There was no need because Robert turned and sprinted from the room, crying like a little girl.
“And don’t come back,” Riley called.
“You’re really pregnant?” Tosh said. Unfortunately he hadn’t removed the Darth Vader mask or turned off the voice modulator, so it sounded like James Earl Jones was stunned by impending fatherhood. “I’m going to be a dad?”
Luke Skywalker put up his hand. “Uh, hello, you’re already a dad.”
“Dude, not now,” Han Solo said. Chewbacca took Luke’s arm and pulled it back down.
“Yes,” Riley said. She sounded small and uncertain. “Is that okay?”
Tosh pushed up his mask. “Okay? Are you crazy? That’s the best news I’ve ever heard.” He pulled her close and kissed her. Everyone cheered and clapped.
“I guess it’s true what they say about babies bringing people together,” Jason said.
“Did you call Robert a lint-licker?” Lacy asked.
“Maybe,” Jason said.
“You kiss your girlfriend with that mouth?” she asked.
“As often as she’ll let me,” he said. He kissed her while everyone was distracted by Riley and Tosh.
“That was a nice speech you made,” Lacy said.
“If this were a movie, someone would turn on some music, and we would dance, thereby crossing all social barriers, once and for all.”
“If this were a movie, it would end with a proposal,” she said.
He took her hand and pressed it to his lips. “I propose we go running together tomorrow.”
Lacy had put it off as long as she could. “I will,” she promised.
“That’s the happiest news I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“That’s very sad for you,” she said.
Kimber made her way over to them. “Everyone’s going to Grigsby’s. You guys in?”
Jason and Lacy looked at each other. “Only if there’s dancing,” Jason said.
“Preferably some type of choreographed group dance where we use our awesome moves to prove we’ve learned a lesson about not stereotyping each other,” Lacy added.
“Y’all are weird,” Kimber said, moving away.
“Do you want to go?” Lacy asked.
“For a little while. I still have work to do.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “All joking aside, my job’s about to get exponentially harder. All the players in my investigation are going to be spread over the country.”
“You could sequester everyone at the hotel,” she suggested.
“On the county’s budget? I don’t think so. Besides, I don’t actually have the power to do that.”
They walked hand in hand to his car. Once inside, Lacy took off the Jedi robe and shook out her hair. Her phone fell out of her pocket, and she picked it up to look at it. “I missed a call from my grandpa.”
“He knows you’re undressing in my car and he’s calling to put a stop to it,” Jason said. “I’m surprised he wasn’t here for this weekend. He put in as much work at the school as Mr. Mertz and Coach Wilson.”
“For so long, the school was all he had. Now family comes first. Mom needed him and Grandma; he wanted to be there. Do you mind if I call him?”
He shook his head and started the car. “Tell him I haven’t touched you, and I was trying to put the clothes back on you. Tell him I don’t even like it when women take their clothes off. Yuck.”
“Let’s not give him a whole new set of worries about you,” Lacy said. “Hi, Grandpa, it’s Lacy. How’s Florida?”
“The combination of sweltering heat and old people makes it look like everyone is melting.”
Lacy chuckled. Jason rested his hand on her leg and gave it a squeeze. “How’s Mom?”
“Do you want the truth or do you want me to sanitize it as if you’re a still a child?”
“The child version, please,” she said.
“Great! Your mom and I are getting along well, and so are she and your father. Your grandmother hasn’t baked once, and everyone has readily accepted Riley’s marriage.”
Translation: Mom was being her usual self and Grandma hadn’t left the kitchen
. “What are you up to?”
“Jason and I are on our way to a restaurant.”
“Tell him to put his hand back on the wheel.”
“How does he do that?” Jason muttered as he snatched his hand off of her leg.
“Listen, Grandpa, have you checked the news from here lately?”
“No,” he said, his tone instantly alert. “What’s wrong?”
“One of our classmates was killed, Summer Ridgefield.”
“Oh. How did she die?”
“She was murdered.”
“You don’t sound surprised,” Lacy said.
“Sadly, I’m not. Summer was a troubled girl.”
“How so?” Lacy asked. When he hesitated, she added, “I’m not simply being nosy; Jason has the case, and he’s sort of hit a wall. Anything you could tell him would be extremely helpful.”
“Summer liked men.”
“I know. I think she hit on everyone in our class at one point.”
“No, not boys, Lacy.
“Are you trying to tell me she hit on you?”
His silence spoke volumes.
Ew, on so many levels.
“I wish I could unhear that.”
“Do you want me to help you forget it?” he asked.
“More than anything in the world right now,” she said. She couldn’t reconcile the mental image of Summer with her beloved, elderly grandfather.
“I made it all up for my vanity,” he lied.
“I suspected as much,” she said. “Thank you.”
“I have to go now. Your mother is crying again, tears of joy, I’m sure. Take care.”
“You, too,” she said.
“Tell Jason I’ll be checking the hidden cameras I installed in your grandmother’s house as soon as I return home.”
Jason paled and swerved into the gravel at the side of the road.
“I’m pretty sure he heard you,” Lacy said. “Good luck with Mom. Better you than me.”
“Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have agreed with that statement,” he said. “Give my love to Riley.”
“Will do. Give my love to Grandma.”
“Will do,” he said.
She closed her phone and looked at Jason. “Summer hit on my grandpa.”
He parked the car and sat in silence, thinking for a long time before he finally turned to her. “I need you to do something for me,” he said.
“What? I’ll do anything,” she promised. “Do you want me to put that information out there and see what comes up? Maybe people know more about Summer than they’re saying.”
Jason used the back of his hand to dab at his sweaty brow. It was hot out, but he looked more sick than warm. “Jason, what is it? What’s wrong?”
He rested his hands on her shoulders, his fingers digging into her flesh. “This is important, Lacy. Are you listening?”
“Yes, I’m listening. Please, what do you need me to do?”
“I need you to call your grandfather back and see if he was kidding about those cameras.”
In the end, there was dancing.
After Lacy was finally able to convince Jason that her grandfather had been joking about hidden cameras, she coaxed him into the restaurant. There was a moment of awkwardness as they decided where to sit—with her friends or his. Tosh and Riley arrived soon after and saved them the trouble. The two couples got a table together, although they might as well have been by themselves for all the interaction they had with each other. Tosh and Riley were in a baby-induced netherworld. Jason and Lacy sat discussing Jason’s case, wondering who had enough motive to murder Summer and attack Brady.
“I can’t stop thinking about what Jill said about Tony Rico,” Jason said.
“You don’t really think he did it,” Lacy said.
“I don’t know what to think. He is and always has been odd.”
“If being odd made someone a murderer, I would be a serial killer by now.”
“I’m choosing not to delve too deeply into that statement. From all accounts, Summer did something really bad to him.”
“The gossip is wrong on that one. Summer did him a favor, the only good deed I’ve ever heard about from her. Of course it wasn’t a good deed for me since afterward I started carrying an adult diaper in my backpack in case it ever happened again.”
“You’ve lost me,” he said.
“I had an interesting conversation with Tony Rico today.”
“You talked to Tony Rico? I didn’t think he actually talked to people.”
“The key is to jump on his back and dangle until you wear him down.”
“I’ll keep that in mind in case I have to question him again. What was the conversation?”
“Apparently while I was crushing on Chester, Tony was crushing on me. Summer locked us in the band room together.”
“Then what happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said Summer did him the favor of locking him in the band room with you. What did he do about it?”
“Nothing. I read a book and sort of lost track of him. I was focused on not losing bladder control.”
“That’s weird,” Jason said.
“I really had to go,” she said.
“Not you, him. He ignored you.”
“I’m just saying that not only is it out of character for Summer to do something nice for someone, but it was supposed to be his big chance to be with you. And he did nothing.”
“I think his elevator may occasionally jamb between floors. The rat in the wheel falls asleep sometimes, if you know what I’m saying. Why else would a grown man follow me around all the time?”
“What?” he yelled, so loudly that several heads turned to look.
“He’s been following me since the reunion started, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
“Not that big of a deal? Lacy, the guy is stalking you.”
“It’s not like that. He has a girlfriend.”
“How do you know? Have you met her?”
“No, but he said he did,” Lacy said.
His head dropped to her shoulder with a groan. “Baby, you can’t believe everything someone says. Actions speak louder than words, and his actions aren’t normal.”
“He wants to buy the hotel.”
“With Monopoly money?”
“No, I think he’s loaded.”
“Did it occur to you that, if it’s true, he wants to buy the hotel to be close to you?”
She pressed her palm to his cheek, comforted by the now-familiar feel of his stubbly cheeks. “Maybe I tend to be a little naïve, but your job has made you paranoid. It’s entirely possible that he was telling the truth and his intentions are honorable. Either way, he had no motive to kill Summer.”
“Psychotic people don’t need a motive,” he reminded her. “And if we’re discussing motive, pretty much every one of your friends had one, including you.”
“Does everyone have an alibi?”
“You and Kimber have each other, but if you killed her together, then you could be covering for each other. And rumor has it that you and Summer had a gigantic argument the night she was killed. Thanks for telling me about that, by the way.”
“I also threatened to kill her,” Lacy added.
“That’s very helpful, thank you,” he said. “What about Kimber? Did she threaten to kill her?”
“No, and Kimber didn’t do it.”
“Jason, she told me her alibi for when Brady was attacked. It’s rock solid.”
“What is it?”
“It’s personal.” He took a breath, but she intercepted him before he could lecture her. “I will share it if the need arises, but while we’re still speaking in hypotheticals, trust me that Kimber’s alibi is airtight.”
“Fine. Your boyfriend, Chester, doesn’t have an alibi, and he’s a weasel-faced toad.”
“You’re really into calling the men of my past weasel-faced.”
“You’re the one who picked such weasel-faced men. Carter, Jody, Lynette, Chad, and Bo don’t have alibis.”
“What about Summer’s friends? What are their motives and alibis?”